Monday, May 12, 2014

The Top 10 Hammer Horror Films

As I continue with Peter Cushing Month here on this blog, I have decided to do something a little different. It is a well-known and documented fact that Cushing gained most fame at Hammer Studios, and Hammer's impact on the history of horror films is just as well known. So today, I count down the Top 10 Hammer horror films. Let it be known that I have not seen every one of Hammer's films, so the following list is made up of my ten favourites. So, without further ado, let's begin.

#10 - The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) - Also known as House of Fright, Hammer's unorthodox adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde flips the story on its head. By having Jekyll become a handsome, debonair Mr. Hyde, actor Paul Massie shows off an evil which can lurk inside just about anyone. The film is dripping with atmosphere and, despite being made fairly early in Hammer's repertoire, is not for the faint of heart.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll also boats fine performances from Dawn Addams as Jekyll's deceitful wife and Christopher Lee as an equally deceitful friend. But Paul Massie really does steal the show as Jekyll and Hyde and manages to send a few shivers up and down the audience's spines. Though rather downbeat in nature, the film is elevated by some black comedy. In all, its a handsomely made, well-acted horror film and a nice, though dramatically different, adaptation of Stevenson's beloved classic.

#9 - Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) - The third film to feature Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker's vampire count, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave finds the vampire out for revenge after a traveling priest exorcises his castle. Traveling to the priest's village, Dracula spreads terror wherever he goes as he sets his sights on the priest's niece (Veronica Carlson).

Dark in tone and suspenseful in execution, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave may not feature Hammer's most complex plot, but it nicely features Lee in the role of Dracula. There is also something incredibly moody about the film, making it Hammer's most atmospheric horror film. Rupert Davies co-stars as the heroic priest who wonderfully contrasts the epitome of evil that is Lee's Dracula. Veronica Carlson makes her Hammer debut in this film and she proves to be an excellent actress. Her acting chops truly show on a film further down this list. Though not as memorable as some of the other installments in Hammer's lengthy Dracula series, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave makes for an entertaining horror film and it proves that even sequels to incredibly successful films can be quite enjoyable.

#8 - The Phantom of the Opera (1962) - Hammer's adaptation of the beloved Gaston Leroux novel is quite atypical for the studio. Scaling back on the level of violence and blood, Hammer's Phantom of the Opera is nevertheless an atmospheric, thoroughly creepy film. Herbert Lom stars as the Phantom in an underrated and well-done performance. Interestingly, Hammer's first choice to play the Phantom was (of all people) Cary Grant, which might explain why the horrific nature of the film is toned down a bit.

The rest of the cast performs admirably. Heather Sears makes for a fine Christine, the Phantom's protege. Edward de Souza appears as the film's hero, and Michael Gough is wonderfully evil as the movie's true villain. (For all you Doctor Who fans, Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor, puts in a brief appearance as well.) The film also features an original score as well as an original opera which is performed throughout the movie. It is a beautiful composition, and the scene in which the Phantom gets to see his work performed is truly moving. This version of the story was also the first to have the Phantom play Bach's Toccata on the organ, an iconic image when it comes to all things Phantom of the Opera. In all, The Phantom of the Opera is an excellently realised, beautifully executed, though very atypical horror film.

#7 - Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) - Peter Cushing's penultimate turn as Baron Frankenstein sees the monster-maker at his nastiest. After committing a foul murder, Frankenstein flees town and, under an assumed name, takes up residence at a small rooming house (run by actress Veronica Carlson). Soon, Frankenstein is up to his old tricks again as he sets to work creating another Creature.

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed has just about everything which made Hammer horror so successful. Cushing simply cannot be topped in his role as the Baron, which truly shows Cushing's versatility as an actor. He could play roles on both sides of the law equally well. Veronica Carlson co-stars as Anna, the owner of the rooming house, and she proves to be one of the best actresses in all of Hammer's horror films. Also featured in the cast is Simon Ward as Anna's boyfriend who becomes wrapped up in Frankenstein's schemes, Freddie Jones as the Creature and Thorley Walters who is on hand to supply some comic relief as an inept police inspector. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is one of Hammer's most triumphant hours, and one of the last films which the studio released which can be given universal praise.

#6 - Cash on Demand (1961) - If I had more time I would devote an entire review to this fine film. You could argue that it isn't quite a horror film, but must still be put on this list as it is a contemporary thriller. Peter Cushing stars as Mr. Fordyce, the manager of a small London-based bank. One afternoon a man (Andre Morell), claiming to be his superior arrives at the bank, but it transpires he has come, equipped with a complex scheme to rob the bank, with Fordyce's unwilling assistance.

A criminally underrated film, Cash on Demand proves to be one of Hammer's finest films as its entire plot relies on the performances of Cushing and Morell. The two actors are brilliant and they add a great deal to this tale of suspense. Set entirely in the bank, the film has an unnerving sense of claustrophobia about it, which makes it a truly intense experience to watch. Again, though not a horror film per se, it is a thriller of the very best kind and is a must-see for fans of Hammer and Peter Cushing alike.

#5 - The Brides of Dracula (1960) - This is where the task of counting down the top ten becomes far more difficult as these next five films are all excellent in their own ways. Nevertheless, number five is The Brides of Dracula, a sequel of sorts to 1958's Dracula which doesn't feature Dracula at all!

All the same, The Brides of Dracula is one of Hammer's most entertaining films and probably the most fun of all the movies which they made to watch. Once more starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing it finds the intrepid vampire hunter fighting evil once more, this time in the form of the monstrous Baron Meinster (David Peel). The Brides of Dracula is the closest any horror movie will come to being a swashbuckling adventure as it moves from one dramatic set piece to the next. Yet, the movie manages to take its subject matter incredibly serious with Cushing adding multiple layers to the film as does Martita Hunt as the Baron's mother. Combining horror and adventure, The Brides of Dracula is a very entertaining way to spend one's time if they're in the mood to watch a bit of Hammer horror.

#4 - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) - I'm sure that my regular readers so this one coming a mile away. Hammer's only foray into Sherlock Holmes territory ended extremely well as the studios' adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous detective novel is probably the most atmospheric and one of my favourites.

Perfectly cast as Holmes, Peter Cushing turns in one of his best performances as Holmes and is partnered with Andre Morell who is one of the screen's best Dr. Watsons. Christopher Lee makes for a fine Sir Henry Baskerville and they all perform against one of Hammer's most atmospheric backdrops. The Hound of the Baskervilles brilliantly captures the ghost-story like air of Doyle's novel, and to this day and deliver a chill or two to its audience. There were hopes that the film would be the start of a Sherlock Holmes series for the studio, but low box office returns did not bring this to fruition. Nevertheless, the film is a timeless mystery and one of the best examples of what Hammer was capable of during their heyday.

#3 - The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) - This film must be included on the list as it, more so than any other Hammer horror film, revolutionised the horror genre. Mary Shelly's incredible Gothic horror tale is lovingly brought to life on screen and not only did it change the future of horror films, but was the first movie to pair Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on screen.

The Curse of Frankenstein features Cushing's breakthrough role as Baron Frankenstein, obsessed with bringing a being from the dead back to life. Expertly handled by its principle cast, as well as director Terence Fisher, The Curse of Frankenstein would prove to have all the right ingredients for audience's tastes, and the formula for horror was repeated countless times throughout each of the studio's coming attractions. In my mind, The Curse of Frankenstein is sadly overlooked today as being one of the most important films in the history of cinema. Try to imagine the horror genre today without it.

#2 - The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) - Another unorthodox horror film, The Curse of the Werewolf ignores the traditional conventions of werewolf cinema, and finds its protagonist, Leon (Oliver Reed) being born a werewolf due to his status as an "unlucky" child. The film is dark and brooding, not featuring the traditional black comedy of Hammer's early efforts, but that fact only heightens the drama of the story.

Oliver Reed is brilliantly cast as Leon and his role in this movie would lead him to stardom. The rest of the cast is equally excellent including Clifford Evans as Leon's sympathetic father figure, Catherine Feller as the woman Leon loves and Anthony Dawson as an evil marquis. The Curse of the Werewolf is also notable in Hammer's repertoire for being set in the eighteenth century Spain as opposed to nineteenth century England. Special mention must also go the make-up as Oliver Reed's werewolf is one of the finest I have ever seen, and the transformation scene is brilliantly executed. The Curse of the Werewolf might have been Hammer's finest film if it weren't for...

#1 - Dracula (1958) - This adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel holds a special place in my heart one reason above all others - it was the first Hammer horror film I watched after I mustered up the courage to do so. It is a brilliant film, not only for its depiction of Stoker's famed vampire, but due to an excellent plot and performances.

Again, Peter Cushing shines in the starring role of Dr. Van Helsing, vampire hunter extraordinaire who will stop at nothing to rid the world of the vampire plague. Cushing's performance is one of his best and alongside Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling, the three turn in grand performances. Of course, Christopher Lee's Dracula is the main attraction, and Lee's performance changed vampires forever. Lee's bestial vampire is truly a terrifying presence on screen and I think solidifies this movie as a true classic.

So, there we have it - my top ten favourite horror films released by Hammer Studios. Again, I have not seen every single one of Hammer's releases, so if you think that I;'m missing something on this list, I'd like to know. Or, do you agree with my ten selections. Feel free to leave a comment below and make sure you check back in for my next Peter Cushing review.

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