To horror film buffs, the name Hammer is synonymous with gothic tales of the macabre. For years, Hammer Film Productions was responsible for some of the high watermark films of the genre. And even when they missed the mark, the studio still managed to turn out a fair number of stylish and entertaining films (I’m looking at you, Dracula A.D. 1972). In 1980, the fine folks at Hammer turned their attention to the small screen and created the Hammer House of Horror, an anthology series which ran for less than four months and produced a scant 13 episodes (quite fitting, eh?). While the series was previously released in edited form, it has never been available uncut, with all the nudity, violence and gore intact. Until now! (Cue dramatic music)
The 13 episodes on this 5-disc set are presented in their original airdate order, with some fancy supplemental features including a brief introduction for each episode pointing out the director, notable stars, and any interesting stories associated with the episode. There’s also a couple of featurettes featuring discussions with some actresses who appeared in various episodes. The transfers are nice and the picture looks crisp. The extras are minimal, but worthy of mention and enough to make this set a worthy purchase for the Hammer fan or hardcore horror completionist in your life.
As for the quality of the show…well, that’s where this becomes a bit more difficult.
Ask anybody who has ever reviewed a film, television series or book: it’s easy to write a scathing review for a piece of garbage that somehow managed to garner a release. The words flow like a drunkard’s wine, decorating the page (or computer screen) with the type of vitriolic hatred men like Roger Ebert reserve for films such as Patch Adams. It is equally effortless for the reviewer or critic to wax poetic on an enchanting piece of art that delighted their senses and left them with a universe of possibilities to ponder upon leaving the theater or closing the book in question.
Love or hate? That’s easy enough. But when it comes to the mediocre? Well, that’s when we try to bluff our way through a review, spending a bit of time discussing some sort of history attached to the studio or actors and perhaps we discuss the manner through which we approach our craft in the hopes that you won’t notice we’re stalling for time, desperately trying to stretch the review out just a little bit longer. Sorta like I’m doing right now.
And that’s the problem with the Hammer House of Horror. On the whole, it’s very hard to call it bad, but I can not in good conscience label it good either. It’s just sort of there.
"Hit-or-miss" might be a more appropriate term. There are a few choice episodes: a few instances filled with actual fright, an interesting camera angle, worthwhile special effect, or a fine bit of acting. There are an equal number of cringe-inducing moments, cheaply constructed sets and acting somewhere near the level of a third-grade talent show. The beauty of the Hammer House of Horror (in my eyes anyway) lies in both the variety of the series and the era in which it was created. There’s a haunted house episode, one with a werewolf, and one with a witch. We get voodoo, cannibalism, and serial killers, so there’s definitely something for everybody, even if the quality is debatable. But better than all that is the fact that we are treated to pure, unadulterated Nineteen Hundred and Eighty. From the fashion to the hairstyles to the acting choices to the topic of each of these 13 episodes, this show is nothing if not of its time. And that, my dear friends, is a beautiful thing.
As evidenced by the sheer volume of people who repeat the phrase on a regular basis, it should be quite obvious that it’s easy to say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. But it wouldn’t be so easy to say if it wasn’t true and the Hammer House of Horror is a perfect example of just how true that saying really is. There’s a whole generation (maybe more) of horror fans who didn’t grow up on faux blood that resembled a melted red Crayola. There are countless children who don’t understand that true terror is a mood, not a disfigured creature jumping out of the dark, accentuated by shrieks of loud music (though it can be that too). But for an older generation, these shows bring back fond memories of a bygone era and in all honesty, that’s the real appeal of the Hammer House of Horror.
At the end of the day, I found The Complete Hammer House of Horror box set to be an odd mix of satisfying and disappointing. If you fall into the diehard fan or completionist categories I mentioned earlier, you’d do well to pick yourself up a copy. And if you don’t, you should probably still rent it. While it doesn’t quite live up to the fantastic legacy of Hammer horror, there’s a worthwhile charm that shouldn’t be overlooked.
And the theme song is amazing. I didn’t really have a place to mention that earlier, but… damn. It’s worth mentioning. Check it out: