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Doogan's Views at The Digital Bits!
page added: 10/31/02

It's Halloween Time!

Oh, yes! It's Halloween time! The bestest time in the whole wide world. It's time for horror movies, costume parties and all the candy you can eat and purge and eat some more. The senses are at their most alive, this time of year. The smell of burning leaves hangs heavy in the air, and the sound of children pulling razor blades from their tongues pierces the night. All right, yeah... that last part I can live without. But, ya know, the part I just can't live without is the horror films thing. And guess what? Two of the most prolific and historically important horror films made in the last 50 years have just recently been released onto DVD. So with a smile in my heart and a song on my face, I bring you a look at the first classic horror films to come out of Hammer Studios. But first a little bit o' history...

Around for decades, Hammer made small ripples here an there, but they really weren't a player until they made an entry into the genre world with The Quatermass Experiment (or maybe you know it better as The Creeping Unknown) in 1955. That proved to be a very success experiment indeed, and so they made a wise decision to jump into a different genre: horror films. And they did it full gusto, eventually redefining how the world saw horror all together. So, if you were going to try and reshape the horror world, where would you begin? Why not revisit the world that Universal began with their classic monster films? And where better to start that endeavor than with the legends of Count Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein and his monster?

The Curse of Frankenstein

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Curse of Frankenstein
1957 (2002) - Hammer Films (Warner)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/D

Specs and Features:

82 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, cast and crew index, Hammer Frankenstein Series production notes, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (25 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 1.0 Mono), subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, Closed Captioned

Released in 1957, The Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer's first film in their long line of revisionary looks at the classic monster icons originally made by Universal Studios. Here, Peter Cushing plays the egomaniacal Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who is telling his story as he awaits his coming execution. As a rich young boy, Frankenstein started his experiments reanimating the dead by bring to life a "FrankenPuppy" with his tutor and friend Paul Krempe. Years later, and with Krempe as his assistant, Frankenstein steals a body from the gallows, procures a set of organs and devises a plan to find the mind of a genius to put into the head of his creation. The brain he finds is that of a professor, who he throws down a set of stairs to obtain the prime organ. During a very tricky surgery to get the brain, Krempe cracks, and accuses Frankenstein of all the awful things he's done. A slight rumble ensues, and the brain is damaged. After Frankenstein puts the damaged brain in his monster (Christopher Lee), he finds that the monster that should have been an intelligent beast is instead a mindless and savage brute, full of rage and a bloodlust that only... uhm, blood can quench.

There's oh so much more to tell, but that would ruin it, wouldn't it? As you can see, this is not a very faithful adaptation, but it respects the original work. And from that, we gain an important perspective on the story. Here, Victor is the monster. He's not naïve and he isn't a young man who has big aspirations. Victor is a cold, calculated killer with the biggest ego this side of God and every intention of doing something with it. Cushing is at his best as an evil aristocratic snob with his sights on recreating man, and Lee is a good monster with some believable make-up designs.

Hammer proved they knew what they were doing because two things came out of this: 1) they made a blockbuster, and 2) they redefined the horror genre, not just relying of scares, but also horrific effects. The monster isn't a stylized thing - it's a gross, sewn-together freak with pus, a dead-eye and blood blisters. There's also severed body parts everywhere, corpses and head wounds galore. It's an unblinking look at the horror genre and fans loved it.

Still do actually. Curse belongs on DVD. It was a long time coming and it looks pretty good on the digital medium. The bright colors seen in the original release of the film have faded a bit over the years, and so the picture isn't as nice as it has been. But the restoration work that has been done with the film does wonders for the it, and makes it look as good as it probably can these days. The images are a bit soft, with loss of focus here and there. But for the most part, it's a pleasing picture that fans of the film shouldn't fault much. And newbies will never know what they're missing. The sound is a standard mono track, and it gets the job done well.

Extras are light, which is sad considering these Warner Hammer films were originally planned to be special editions. We get a nice looking trailer, a non-interactive cast and crew list and a text piece on the Hammer Frankenstein films. That's it. The additional gore shots made for the Japanese release (as extended sequences in the film and as deleted scenes) are missing, which is a shame.

Curse of Frankenstein is my favorite of the Hammer films, with its over-the-top gore and chilling performances. You should all run out and pop this one in your player this Halloween.

The Curse of Frankenstein
Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

The Horror of Dracula

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Horror of Dracula
1958 (2002) - Hammer Films (Warner)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/D

Specs and Features:

81 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, cast and crew index, Hammer Dracula Series production notes, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (26 chapters), languages: English (DD 1.0 mono), subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, Closed Captioned

Horror of Dracula (or just Dracula in Europe) followed in 1958, and it proved to be an even bigger experience for the Hammer studio, proving that they had the goods. It fortified Hammer as THE new kids on the block.

Dracula lifts only the most minor plot point from the Stoker novel, and runs far and wide away. Harker, instead of being a real estate man, is now an undercover vampire hunter in league with Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Due to a few complications, Harker ends up dead and Van Helsing ends up on the trail of a Dracula (who is now seeking revenge and a replacement bride, figuring Harker's fiancée Mina is the perfect candidate). Ripping through half of England, Van Helsing has to stop the vengeful bloodsucker before it's too late.

Dracula spawned numerous sequels, and all of them are pretty darn good. But in terms of history, this is really the badass of the bunch. Instead of being an aristocratic snob or a dark, loving rat creature, Christopher Lee fashions a Dracula who is smack dab in the middle. He's got class, but he loves him some blood and isn't afraid to take it. Plus, Lee is one sexy mo-fo. Truly, sexuality and vampirism are forever linked, but this was one of the first times that cinema made the connection, showing Lucy in an almost orgasmic state waiting for her new lover.

Dracula is a good movie, no doubt. But a lot of its significance is lost to today's jaded moviegoer. Gone forever is the impact of the opening image. In 1958, audiences had never seen a Dracula film in color, so seeing the crypt etched with the word "Dracula" suddenly get splashed with the reddest blood you've ever seen was a shock. Now, we go, "Gee, why the hell did they do that?" or "That was telegraphed, huh?" Regardless, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee simply ARE Van Helsing and Dracula for many fans, and I don't think any team of actors had played the characters more fully than they did.

This Warner DVD does the film great justice. There's some print damage and the colors are faded thanks to storage issues and time itself, but frankly, this is a good-looking transfer. It's very pleasing to the eye, and looks a lot better than I expected. The sound is a standard mono. No big deal, but it sounds like it should, with no audible hissing or pops. My big complaint is with the extras. A trailer, inaccessible cast and crew info and a text history on the Hammer Dracula films isn't NEARLY enough for a film of this magnitude. This should have been a special edition and Warner really missed the boat by not making it such.

Horror of Dracula
Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein and both incredibly well crafted films, worthy of a special look this holiday season. Put them in your library just to have them. They look and sound wonderful for what they are, and even if they aren't as special as they should be, they still represent themselves pretty well. Do check them out.

Until next time, don't step on that spider, 'cause it might be me. Or Lon Chaney.

Keeping spinning those spooky discs!

Todd Doogan

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