Film Review: The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

Also known as: Terror of the Hatchet Men (alternative US title)
Release Date: March 15th, 1961
Directed by: Anthony Bushell
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: James Bernard
Cast: Christopher Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, Geoffrey Toone

Merlin Film Productions, Hammer Films, Columbia Pictures, 76 Minutes

Review:

“Have you ever had your bones scraped, Captain? It is painful in the extreme I can assure you.” – The Tong Leader

When I recently reviewed Hammer Films’ The Stranglers of Bombay, I discovered that this film was somewhat of a remake of that film. Watching this, I didn’t see it. I guess there are some similar narrative beats and both take place in exotic places in Asia but this is much more a proto-Fu Manchu picture than anything else.

With Christopher Lee in the lead, as the Chinese criminal kingpin, I feel like this lead to him starring in those five Fu Manchu pictures that stretched from 1965 to 1969. Hell, this probably inspired their creation.

However, this is better than those Fu Manchu movies. I think that Christopher Lee’s performance is solid in each of those, as well as this picture, but this really is the genesis of his longest run as a character other than Dracula.

I like that this takes place in Hong Kong but it still has that patented late ’50s/early ’60s Hammer style to it. I’m actually surprised that the studio didn’t recycle some of these sets into sequels for this, as Lee gives a really chilling performance and because this was different enough from Hammer’s regular output that they could’ve crafted another franchise from this, as they did with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.

I understand why this was just a one-off, though, as it’s not as good as the first installment in Hammer’s core franchises. Also, Christopher Lee was not a fan of the makeup and considered it the most uncomfortable that he had ever worn up to this point in his career. But this was his first starring credit, as his other well-known films before this had him playing the monster to Peter Cushing’s hero or mad scientist.

Once again, I thought that Jimmy Sangster wrote a pretty good script for Hammer. The sets are good, as are the costumes. The makeup passes the test for the era, even if modern HD restoration brings out its flaws more.

Overall, The Terror of the Tongs is better than I anticipated it being.

Rating: 6.5/10

Film Review: Scream of Fear (1961)

Also known as: Taste of Fear (UK)
Release Date: March 30th, 1961 (London premiere)
Directed by: Seth Holt
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Clifton Parker
Cast: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee, John Serret

Hammer Films, Columbia Pictures, 81 Minutes

Review:

“You say my mind is affecting my legs. You’re wrong. It’s my legs that are affecting my mind.” – Penny Appleby

Man, when it comes to old school Hammer movies, I’ve come to realize that most of the really good scripts come from Jimmy Sangster. While this isn’t the best of the films he’s written, the story is solid and it sticks with you.

The plot follows a wheelchair-bound heiress named Penny, who returns to her father’s home after the suicide of her best friend. Upon arrival, her father is absent and she has to contend with her stepmother, who she doesn’t trust and has just met.

Penny believes that she sees her father’s corpse in the guest cottage at night and she screams hysterically, alerting her stepmother. Upon discovering Penny, the corpse is nowhere to be found. So the family doctor, played by the legendary Christopher Lee, is summoned to treat Penny for trauma and her potential hallucinations.

The family’s chauffer pulls Penny aside and admits that something unusual is going on and that he’ll help her discover the truth. However, Penny doesn’t fully trust him. All the while, a police detective shows up and believes that Penny has her own strange secrets.

I don’t want to spoil too much but the setup has a lot of layers to it and it almost feels very noir-esque, as it opens the door to a lot of potential twists and surprises.

I’ve got to say that the acting in this is quite exceptional and exceeds what was the normal level of performances in Hammer pictures. Susan Strasberg is pretty damn convincing in her role and she was so dedicated to it, that her style of method acting drew the ire of her co-star Ann Todd.

However, Christopher Lee, a man with over 200 credits to his name, considered this the best film that Hammer ever made with him in it. While I don’t think it’s that good, Lee’s opinion should matter quite a bit, considering his long, iconic career and for how many movies he was featured in under the Hammer banner.

Ultimately, Scream of Fear is a nice gem buried underneath the massive catalog of Hammer films. In modern times, people only seem to remember the movies based off of famous literary monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. However, Hammer has so many other movies, like this one, that deserve to be revisited and showcased for modern classic horror fans that might not have dived deep enough.

Rating: 7.25/10

Film Review: Maniac (1963)

Release Date: May 20th, 1963 (UK)
Directed by: Michael Carreras
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Stanley Black
Cast: Kerwin Mathews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse, Donald Houston

Hammer Films, 86 Minutes

Review:

“You take a man’s wife, Mr. Farrell, but not his money?” – Georges

Maniac is a pretty neat, lesser known Hammer picture. It’s written by Jimmy Sangster, who has written pretty much nothing but good shit for the studio. He’s probably Hammer’s most prolific writer and the films where his talent really shines are in smaller, lesser known ones like this.

This almost has a noir vibe to the story and like noir, it’s got some really wretched people and some surprising plot twists in it.

The killer is just really damn cool looking, especially for the early ’60s and in a lot of ways, the character feels like a prototype for a slasher flick bad guy, even though those weren’t a thing yet.

The killer wears a welding mask and carries a blowtorch. Granted, we see his face and he is very much just a human dude. Still, it gives off slasher vibes and the bad guy is pretty damn good and menacing. Most importantly, all the stuff with the killer in this is really damn effective.

The highlight of the film, to me, was the finale, which was shot in a cavernous tomb looking location. It was actually filmed in the huge stone galleries that were dug into the rock of the Val d’Enfer of Les Baux-de-Provence in southeastern France. The location really ups the ante in the picture and gives it something else memorable other than the killer.

My only real issue with the film is that the acting was a bit meh. I wouldn’t call it bad but the cast really could’ve used more coffee throughout the shooting day. I wouldn’t call the performances understated as much as I’d call them disinterested. Honestly, though, this really falls on the shoulders of the director or the casting agent.

Maniac is another Hammer film that has been kind of lost to time but after seeing it, the movie exceeded my expectations. It also makes me glad that I really started digging deeper into the Hammer vaults beyond the Victorian horror stuff and the films starring Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other lesser known Hammer horror thrillers.

Film Review: The Snorkel (1958)

Release Date: June 18th, 1958 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Guy Green
Written by: Anthony Dawson, Peter Myers, Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Francis Chagrin
Cast: Peter van Eyck, Betta St. John, Mandy Miller

Clarion Films, Hammer Films, Columbia Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“You think I’m mad, don’t you? They all thought I was mad when I said he killed my daddy.” – Candy Brown

This is another Hammer film I have never seen but was introduced to through a beefy Blu-ray box set I recently purchased, which features some lesser known gems by the greatest horror studio that ever existed.

The Snorkel also has one of the coolest posters I’ve ever seen but sadly, the movie doesn’t live up to its awesomeness. But that’s not to say it’s bad, it’s actually pretty good with a unique story, good performances and beautiful scenery.

The plot of the film is about a murderer that wears a diving mask equipped with air and then hides while he kills his victims with gas. He likes to knock his victims out, then turn on the gas lamps without flame, letting the gas fill the room to asphyxiate his victim. All the while, he hides under a trapdoor in the floor, breathing in clean air through his mask, where he can also listen to the conversations of the police investigating the scene.

Initially, he kills his wife but her daughter alludes to the fact that he also killed her father, previously. The girl isn’t sure how and no one believes her, so she starts snooping around. As the film rolls on, the killer attempts to kill the girl a few times, which culminates in him trying to murder her the same way he did her mother.

The film primarily takes place in a coastal Italian villa. The sets are pretty impressive and just look cool and exotic, especially for what Hammer usually did, which was Victorian horror stories set in England or Germany, in the case of the Frankenstein movies, and various Eastern European places, in the case of the Dracula films.

This is presented in black and white but it’s pretty stylized, which is also bolstered by the exotic locale.

In the end, this movie was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed it. I thought it was a cool concept, even if it was a bit hokey and odd. The film is held together by the performances by its leads and it did a good job of separating itself from the standard Hammer formula and excelled at doing its own, unique thing.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer horror films of the ’50s through ’70s.

Film Review: Paranoiac (1963)

Release Date: May 1st, 1963 (Italy)
Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: Josephine Tey, Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Elisabeth Lutyens
Cast: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion, Maurice Denham

Hammer Films, 80 Minutes

Review:

“Now I need to drink some more.” – Simon Ashby

Last week, I watched Nightmare, another rare black and white movie from Hammer and also directed by Freddie Francis and written by Jimmy Sangster. While I enjoyed it and felt like it slightly missed the mark, I feel like this picture, which came out a year earlier, is a better film.

Granted, a lot of that credit could go to Oliver Reed, as his performance here is intense and enchanting. And honestly, this is one of many movies I can now point too and say, “That guy is an underappreciated and underutilized actor and here’s why!”

Something else that helps this movie is that it is horror but it also has a film-noir type plot about family inheritance, a once dead sibling returning, a psychotic narcissist trying to turn his sister insane, an incestuous subplot and more twists and turns than that silly road in San Francisco.

Even though this doesn’t feel like a typical Hammer Films movie, it’s kind of cool and does a lot with very little.

The end sequence is really well executed and in both noir and horror fashion, the asshole gets some good comeuppance.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this, as it’s one of the few Hammer films I haven’t seen but I was pleasantly surprised. Especially, when I just thought it’d be a lot like Nightmare. It definitely exceeded that decent movie and also provided a memorable performance by Reed.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer horror films of the ’60s.

Film Review: Nightmare (1964)

Also known as: Here’s the Knife, Dear: Now Use It (alternative title), Satan with Long Lashes (Germany)
Release Date: February 28th, 1964 (Germany)
Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Don Banks
Cast: David Knight, Moira Redmond, Brenda Bruce, Jennie Linden

Hammer Films, 83 Minutes

Review:

“You found me out there, didn’t you? That part of it wasn’t a dream! Where does the dream finish and reality begin?” – Janet

This movie is a bit of departure in style from what one would expect from Hammer Films in the mid-’60s.

To start, it’s in black and white. Secondly, it doesn’t really star anyone of note or any of the regular faces that you’d see in a Hammer production during their peak.

However, this is written by Jimmy Sangster, who penned a lot of Hammer’s best scripts. It’s also directed by Hammer regular Freddie Francis. So there was at least a solid crew behind the camera.

Still, this isn’t quite what one would expect from a Hammer picture and that probably has a lot to do with why I hadn’t watched it until now. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but it’s unique and strange.

I found it mostly enjoyable, even if it wasn’t as fantastical and visually alluring as the studio’s typical output. This felt much more like a low budget indie horror movie of the ’60s and tonally, reminded me a lot of the black and white Roger Corman productions of the time, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13.

The story is about a young boarding school student that has nightmares of her institutionalized mother haunting her. Because of her horrible dreams, the girl is expelled from school and sent back home. Once there, things get even worse.

While it’s an interesting enough setup, the story does feel a bit paint-by-numbers. It kind of goes in the direction you’d expect.

I did like the over-the-top acting in some scenes and actually thought that it was really effective, as the main character slipped further and further into madness.

Still, this is far from Hammer’s best and while it’s a neat experiment and departure from their style, it also shows that the studio was at its best when it was sticking to the great style it had already perfected.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer horror films of the ’60s.

Film Review: The Mummy (1959)

Release Date: August 1st, 1959 (Japan)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Franz Reizenstein
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Michael Ripper

Hammer Films, 97 Minutes (original), 86 Minutes

Review:

“He who robs the graves of Egypt dies!” – Mehemet Bey

Since I’ve reviewed the entirety of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein films, I figured that this classic monster reboot series also needed to be revisited.

Coming off of the heels of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, Hammer got the same creative team back together and took a shot at resurrecting The Mummy in their own, original way.

It also helped that they brought back both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for this one, making it feel like the third part in a trilogy of films where Hammer was showing tribute to the Universal Monsters franchise that kicked off in the 1930s.

I actually love that this is its own thing and it’s not trying to remake 1932’s The Mummy with Boris Karloff. It just takes the concept and gives the audience a fresh, new story. Sure, there are obvious similarities but this picture has a unique visual aesthetic and frankly, it’s one of the best looking Hammer movies of all-time. I also say that as someone that already loves the visual style of the studio’s classic films.

While I would rank this below the first Dracula and Frankenstein films, it’s still pretty damn good and it’s certainly the best of the Hammer Mummy series.

I enjoyed the characters and I especially liked the look of Christopher Lee’s mummy. The makeup was impressive for 1959 and Lee is such a good physical actor that his mummy is one of my favorites of all-time. While I don’t feel that he gets the same level of admiration as Karloff’s version of the monster, I’d say that his is on the same level and possibly a bit better due to his size and how imposing he is. Lee’s mummy just looks and feels stronger than Karloff’s and there is just something more sinister about him.

Ultimately, this is a solid Hammer horror flick. For fans of the studio and classic monsters, it is definitely worth checking out.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: the other films in Hammer’s Mummy series, as well as other Hammer films of the time.

Film Review: The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Release Date: May 9th, 1962 (Denmark)
Directed by: John Gilling
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Gary Hughes
Cast: Christopher Lee, Kerwin Mathews, Glenn Corebett, Oliver Reed, Peter Arne, Marla Landi, Desmond Llewelyn, Michael Ripper

Hammer Films, Columbia Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[to the elders] I am not guilty. The cause of Maggie’s death… was fear. Fear of her brutal husband. Yes, fear is your weapon, and it’s a dangerous weapon because one day it will recoil on your heads.” – Jonathan Standing

Well, since I recently watched The Devil-Ship Pirates, one of the few Hammer Films swashbucklers, I figured that I’d also check out this film, which came out just before it and also stars Christopher Lee.

I actually liked this a wee bit more than The Devil-Ship Pirates, as it seemed to have more going on. I really enjoyed the plot of the other film but this one seemed to have more layers and more at stake. Regardless, they’re both enjoyable for those who like classic swashbuckling tales.

In this one, we see Lee play an actual pirate, where he played a Spanish naval commander in Devil-Ship. It was cool seeing him with the traditional garb and eye patch. He also got to use his sword, which is always a bonus. I don’t think people know that Lee actually has the most sword fights in motion picture history. I think that’s a cool fact that gets lost because he’s primarily known for being in horror movies and not action pictures.

I really enjoyed Kerwin Mathews in this, as well as Hammer regulars Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper. We even get to see Desmond Llewelyn, which is always a treat when he appears outside of his most famous role as Q in the old school James Bond movies.

All in all, this is a pretty decent swashbuckler from a studio that probably should’ve made more than they did. But I get it, horror was Hammer’s real bread and butter. 

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other swashbuckling/pirate movies by Hammer like Captain Clegg a.k.a. Night Creatures and The Devil-Ship Pirates.

Film Review: The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)

Release Date: May, 1964
Directed by: Don Sharp
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Music by: Gary Hughes
Cast: Christopher Lee, John Cairney, Barry Warren, Andrew Keir, Philip Latham, Natasha Pyne, Duncan Lamont, Michael Ripper, Suzan Farmer

Hammer Films, Columbia Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“They’re Spaniards! I know their stink!” – Harry

I’ve known about this movie for decades but I’ve never been able to find it streaming anywhere and tracking down a copy of it has been met with difficulty. However, I did notice that it’s streaming for free on YouTube, right now. That probably won’t last long, though.

For those who enjoy the horror movies that were put out by Hammer Films, you might also enjoy their swashbuckling/pirate-centric movies of which, there are only three.

This one stars Hammer legend Christopher Lee as the captain of a Spanish warship that has docked next to a British village following the fleet’s defeat to British forces. The captain and his men, however, convince the village that the Spaniards won the war and were now there to take over the town. As the film rolls on, tensions rise and the villagers start to suspect that the Spaniards are lying.

While this is light on the swashbuckling, it does feature Christopher Lee wielding a sword, which is always a plus. It almost plays like a political thriller with pirate-y and Hammer horror vibes mixed in.

It’s pretty well acted for what it is and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Lee play this villainous character, which was a good departure from his other Hammer work.

Ultimately, I kind of wish that Hammer would’ve done more films like this. Hopefully, I can find The Pirates of Blood River in the near future, as I’ve always wanted to see that one too.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other swashbuckling/pirate movies by Hammer like Captain Clegg a.k.a. Night Creatures and The Pirates of Blood River. 

Film Review: The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)

Release Date: November 8th, 1970 (UK)
Directed by: Jimmy Sangster
Written by: Jeremy Burnham, Jimmy Sangster
Based on: characters by Mary Shelley
Music by: Malcolm Williamson
Cast: Ralph Bates, Kate O’Mara, Veronica Carlson, David Prowse

EMI Films, Hammer Films, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I’m going to make a person!” – Victor Frankenstein

It seems like Hammer fans are split on this movie. Many seem to dig it’s somewhat fresh and slightly more tongue and cheek take on Frankenstein while others outright hate it and think it was a failure that missed its mark.

I’m on the side of liking it but I also just find it entertaining and amusing and I’m not wholly in love with it.

What works for me is Ralph Bates. He’s good in this and it’s cool seeing him get his chance to actually star in a Hammer horror film, as opposed to just being a supporting player or low tier villain. I think that his humor comes through and even with how subtle he is about it, his timing and facial expressions are impeccable.

Bates’ performance is a bit understated and it works for me but I can see how it doesn’t resonate with many Hammer fans, who might not enjoy his sort of dry wit.

I also like that David Prowse got to play this film’s version of the Monster, as he’s a good physical actor that can convey a lot without seeming like he’s doing much at all. I wouldn’t call his performance as good as it was in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell or the original Star Wars trilogy, where he was Darth Vader, but he actually creates a version of the monster that feels unpredictable and legitimately dangerous.

Additionally, we get the enchanting Veronica Carlson, who is sweet and looks like a million bucks. Add in Kate O’Mara and you’ve got a solid, well-rounded cast. Some people may know O’Mara as The Rani from the Tom Baker years on Doctor Who.

The plot sort of reboots 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. It’s nowhere near as good as that movie but it’s still interesting seeing another team get to tackle the material while still having this visually fit within the Hammer style. But ultimately, this wasn’t as successful as Hammer had hoped, as it didn’t get a sequel and the studio went back to making more movies with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer Frankenstein films, as well as the Hammer Dracula and Mummy series.