Friday 26 June 2020

The Saint in Europe, and on TV

The Saint - The Covetous Headsman
This is another instalment in my project of comparing episodes of classic 1950s-1970s TV series with their literary sources. In this case I’m going to look at the stories from the 1953 Leslie Charteris collection The Saint in Europe.

Charteris’s Saint stories fall into several distinct phases with Simon Templar evolving by stages from the incredibly brash cocky hero of the 1930s to the more thoughtful, slightly wiser and just so ever so slightly sadder but more sophisticated Templar of the 1950s. So these stories all feature that final version of the Saint.

While the Saint might be older and wiser he still has a very flexible attitude towards the law. Stealing is of course wrong and the Saint would never do such a thing. But stealing from other thieves - that’s not really stealing is it? And he continues to derive a great deal of harmless amusement from causing annoyance to policemen.

Unfortunately the Saint’s larcenous tendencies had to be erased for the TV series, which makes the character slightly less interesting. That’s especially so in a couple of the stories  I’ll be discussing here - it takes away just a tiny bit of the zest from them.

The Covetous Headsman takes place in Paris. Quite by accident Simon hears of a gruesome but fascinating murder. The victim was decapitated but the head was found beside the body so it wasn’t an attempt to disguise the victim’s identity. So why cut off his head? Maybe it was the act of a madman, but Simon has to consider the possibility that there was a very good reason for it. Of course it’s none of his business but the victim’s sister is a young pretty American girl named Valerie North and pretty girls are always Simon’s business.

Discovering the identity of the murderer is not too difficult but that’s not the main problem. It’s the motive that matters. Valerie’s life may depend on the answer to that question. And the answer may lie in the past.

The Saint - The Latin Touch
The Covetous Headsman was adapted as the fourth episode of the first season of ITC’s The Saint TV series, going to air in late 1962. The source was a short story it was necessary to expand it a little to fit a one-hour time slot but apart from that the plot follows Charteris’s story remarkable faithfully. Since Charteris’s plot is pretty good, it works. Having the wonderful Barbara Shelley as Valerie also helps (in the TV version she is English rather than American).

The title caused a bit of a problem. It doesn’t mean the same thing in the TV version that it meant in the short story but I guess they thought it was too good a title to change.

The Latin Touch takes Simon Templar to Rome where gets to do something he always enjoys - saving a damsel in distress. If the damsel is young and pretty so much the better. The damsel is the daughter of a high-ranking US State Department official. She’s been kidnapped and the ransom terms cannot possibly be met. Simon doesn’t have a clue where the girl is being held but he uses his ignorance to his advantage in a very clever manner.

It’s a situation in which Simon must depend entirely on his wits - he has no objection to fisticuffs or gunplay but they’re just not going to be of any use this time. Fortunately he did pay attention to his Latin lessons at school.

It’s a neat little story.

The TV adaptation was the second episode of the first season of The Saint. There are some minor changes. The girl’s father is now the Governor of an American state rather than being with the State Department. Several minor characters are added including a comic relief Italian taxi driver (played with hammy relish by Warren Mitchell). But despite the TV version manages to retain Charteris’s core plot in its entirety. Even more so than in The Covetous Headsman every single one of Charteris’s clever plot twists is preserved. Even the Latin touch which gave the story its title is there.

The Saint - The Loaded Tourist
Which must have pleased Leslie Charteris quite a bit - he liked faithful adaptations of his stories.

These two adaptations are not just faithful, they’re delightfully entertaining.

The Loaded Tourist takes place in Switzerland. In Lucerne, to be precise. Simon witnesses a robbery. The object of the robbery was a briefcase. The briefcase is now nowhere to be found, or at least that’s the assumption of the police. The Saint however knows where it might be found, and finds it. The contents of the briefcase are none of his business but that’s never stopped him before and it doesn’t stop him mow. The contents are most intriguing and rather puzzling.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to arouse Simon Templar’s interest it’s someone telling him obvious lies and that’s what happens here. He simply has to get to the bottom of such a mystery.

This is a pretty lightweight story, not quite as clever as The Covetous Headsman or The Latin Touch, but it’s enjoyable enough.

The adaptation of The Loaded Tourist was the fifth first season episode of The Saint.

A few changes were made and a couple of additional characters added. The robbery victim now has a teenage son as well as a wife and his junior business partner now plays a key rôle. The basic plot is however mostly intact. If there’s a slight weakness in the TV version it’s that a little bit too much information is given away too early. On the other hand there is an extra plot twist at the end. On the whole it works pretty successfully.

What impresses me about these three adaptations is that whole the short stories had to be padded out the passing was done skilfully and without damaging the integrity of the essential plot, and without losing the flavour of the originals.

The Saint - The Spanish Cow
A seaside resort in the south of France provides the setting for The Spanish Cow. A very large middle-aged American widow has become the butt of everyone’s jokes due to her habit of rising to the bait every single time. What interests Simon Templar about her however is that she possesses some astonishingly valuable jewels. The Saint has no doubt that he could put such wealth to far better use. How does one go about separating a middle-aged woman from her jewels? The answer of course is Romance. The Saint’s larcenous intentions are scarcely honourable but when all is said and done he is after all a thief.

This is a very slight story with a twist that you’re probably going to see coming. It may be that the purpose of this story is to remind the reader that while the Saint is very often on the side of justice he really is a criminal. A criminal with a conscience perhaps, a criminal with a sense of honour perhaps, but a criminal nonetheless.

The Spanish Cow was adapted as the eighth episode of the fourth season. It want to air in 1965. Adapting this one posed a real challenge. Since they’d decided that the TV Saint could not ever be seen to be guilty of stealing the story was just not going to make any sense at all. Screenwriter Michael Cramoy solved the problem by throwing away Charteris’s story in its entirety and writing a completely original screenplay with the same title. In this version the American widow becomes the widow of a South American dictator. The Saint has no designs whatsoever on her jewels, but there are two groups of people who most certainly want to steal them. One group is the government which overthrew the dictator, the other is the late dictator’s brother who wants to use the jewels to finance a counter-revolution.

The dictator’s widow is given a gorgeous young female companion because every episode must feature at least one beautiful woman. Some bumbling French policemen are also added. The result bears not the slightest similarity to Charteris’s story. That’s not to say that the TV episode isn’t fun in its own way. It is. In fact it’s rather clever. But it’s a totally new story.

It’s interesting that the three season one episodes I’ve talked about here are all fairly faithful adaptations while the season four episode abandons any pretence of being faithful to the original. Does this indicate a change of policy on the part of the producers? I’ll have to do a few more short story-TV episode comparisons before committing myself on that question.

The Saint - The Rhine Maiden
TheAnd, as it happens, that crooked company promoter just happens to be on the same train. It seems highly likely that he has on his person a large part of the money he has swindled. It seems like a situation in which any adventurer worth his salt ought to do something. Rhine Maidens should not have their dreams taken away from them.

This is another story in which we see the various side of Simon’s character. He is himself on the train with him certain property which was not exactly honestly come by. He is after all a thief. But he is also a romantic. A very ruthless romantic. It’s a neat little story, and I do love mystery thriller stories set on trains.

The Rhine Maiden was episode sixteen of the third season of The Saint TV series. And it’s another story which was going to pose some problems. And the same solution was adopted as in The Spanish Cow - the TV script (by Brian Degas) has only the most tenuous connection to the original story. There is a crooked company promoter but he’s from London, not Ohio. The only Rhine Maiden here is a train called the Rhine Maiden Express. It provides the setting for a thrilling action climax but it’s not quite the same as a real live Rhine Maiden. The girl in the TV version is an English girl and she’s the daughter of the company promoter’s father.

A whole new (and admittedly quite ingenious) plot has been fashioned, based on a mysterious death and a creepy doctor with a very shady past.

If you don’t mind that it’s actually an entirely different story then it’s quite an enjoyable one.

So a pattern does seem to be emerging, with the later adaptations retaining very little of Charteris’s stories apart from the titles.

The Golden Journey is a whimsical little tale. Belinda Deane is an American girl. She is very pretty, very rich and very spoilt. It is obvious to Simon Templar that she is going to make her fiancé’s life miserable, and her own as well. Unless something is done. The Saint knows what Belinda needs. She needs to join him in a week-long walking tour across the Alps where she can learn to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and the pleasures of roughing it and having to actually do some chores. Of course Belinda would rather die than going off tramping through the woods but Simon knows how how he can persuade her. The first step is to steal her handbag.

The Saint - The Golden Journey
Thus begins Belinda’s worst nightmare. Simon even forces her to do the washing up. Simon insists that they cannot afford to stay in guest houses and they must actually sleep in the open which of course is the last straw for Belinda.  And when she misbehaves she gets a spanking. By the end of the week she will have learnt something or perhaps she will have murdered Simon.

There’s a bit too much of the back to nature stuff in this story for my liking. I’m afraid my feelings about the great outdoors are pretty much in line with Belinda’s. But the point of the story is the Simon intends to destroy the old spoilt Belinda and create a new one. Needless to say this is the sort of story that a writer could not possibly get away with today. It’s one of those Battle of the Sexes stories that were rather popular in the ’50s. But although it’s very lightweight in the plot department it does have its amusing moments and it’s difficult not to enjoy seeing a spoilt rich brat brought face to face with some real life.

This one was adapted as the tenth episode of the first season of the TV series.

The scene of the action is shifted to Spain but the story remains completely unchanged. Simon still steals all of Belinda’s money but it was obviously felt that they could get away with this - he is after all doing it for her own good. Pretty much every incident of the short story is preserved. Belinda even gets her spanking. Erica Rogers is very good as Belinda. She’s amazingly obnoxious and petulant at first, and enraged by the fact that there’s no way out for her - she either does what Simon tells her to do or she won’t eat.

The TV version is if anything slightly more amusing than the original story.

The final story in The Saint in Europe is The Angel’s Eye. Unfortunately the TV adaptation was one of the colour episodes which are much more difficult to get hold of than the black-and-white episodes and I don’t have access to a copy. The story itself begins with a man asking Simon’s help in regard to a very valuable diamond. The man works for a jeweller and has taken the stone to Amsterdam to be recut but the diamond cutter not only refuses to return it, he denies having ever seen it. Which of course intrigues the Saint. The twist in this story is really not all that dazzling but the story is enjoyable enough.

So I’ve looked at six adaptations - four very faithful adaptations from the first season and two from later seasons that bear no resemblance at all to the source stories. Interesting.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer season 2 (1959)

In the late 1940s Mickey Spillane revolutionised the private eye novel by massively increasing the amount of sex and violence and adding a dash of sadism for good measure. Critics were aghast but readers loved Spillane’s Mike Hammer crime thrillers which went on to sell several hundred million copies.

Bringing Mike Hammer to the small screen in the late 1950s was always going to be quite a challenge. The sex and violence wold have to be dialled way way down. The danger was that Hammer would end up being just another generic television private eye. The syndicated Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer TV series (which debuted in 1958 and lasted for 78 episodes) somehow managed to solve this insoluble problem. It retains at least some of the flavour of Spillane’s novels and it’s astonishingly violent for its time. It adds some humour to make things a bit more palatable but it’s still pretty hard-edged.

As played by Darren McGavin Mike Hammer is not just tougher, more ruthless, more sadistic and more violent than other TV private eyes of the era, he’s tougher, more ruthless, more sadistic and more violent than any American TV private eye I can think from the 60s and 70s as well. McGavin’s Hammer handles things like extracting information from reluctant sources pretty much the way the Hammer of the novels does - by a judicious mixture of extreme violence and intimidation.

The awkward part of course is that Mike Hammer is the hero and we have to like him. Somehow McGavin contrives to pull off that trick as well. Hammer can be brutal and sadistic but he can also be charming and sensitive. We just can’t help liking this guy. That’s actually not too far removed from Spillane’s original creation either - Spillane’s Hammer divides people into good people and bad people. He’ll do anything for good people but he shows no mercy to bad people. Spillane’s Hammer also divides women into two categories. Ladies and nice girls get treated with a great deal of respect. Bad girls just exist to be used for sex. In the TV series this latter aspect is obviously toned down a little but it’s still pretty clear that Hammer does see women as filling into those two categories.

Like most crime series of its era this one was made within very tight budgetary limits and with very tight shooting schedules. The best crime series of this period (like M Squad) made that liability into an asset and had extraordinary energy and urgency. And that’s certainly true of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

I still think it’s a pity that Velda, Mike’s gun-toting secretary in the books, doesn’t appear in the series but I can understand why she was left out. The half-hour format demands very tight scripts with no room for sub-plots or distractions and her presence might have slowed down the action. And Darren McGavin has more than enough charisma to carry the series on his own.

The first season was successful enough to justify a second which followed in 1959 and the second season (of 39 episodes) is the formula as before and it’s just as good.

The complete series has been released in Region 1 in a DVD boxed set and it looks pretty good for a 1950s television series.

Episode Guide

Evidence on the Record is a fun episode with Mike getting mixed up with crooked dealings in the jukebox industry.

The Commodore is a lesser episode but it manages to be a feelgood story without resorting to too much sentimentality. An old man is being fired into an old folks’ home by his niece’s husband. It’s all to do with some money (obtained by less than honest means) which has gone missing and that leads to murder. The police have their suspect and he’s certainly a very obvious one but while he’s no angel he might not necessarily be a murderer. Darren McGavin does a good job in showing us Hammer's sensitive side without making the viewer cringe.

Pen Pals sees Mike trying to help out a reformed ex-con named Marty who needs help desperately but won’t admit it. Mike is going to give him the help whether he wants it or not. A couple of hoods Marty shared a prison cell with are forcing him to be an accomplice in a series of store robberies, one of the stores being Marty’s. They kidnap Marty’s wife in order to persuade him to play ball but that’s a mistake because it makes Hammer really angry. It’s fun to see Mike Connors, later to become an ionic private eye himself as Mannix, guest starring as Marty.

In Now Die in It Mike has to look for the sister-in-law of an old friend. The girl is seventeen and she’s got herself into trouble, as they used to say in the 50s, but she won’t say who the guy is. And it might be too late anyway. It’s the sort of job Mike really hates. There is some fun though, in the scenes in the Dewdrop Club, with Mike demonstrating his ability to get reluctant witnesses to talk. A pretty good episode.

Groomed to Kill seems like it’s just a small-time shakedown. A guy about to be married is being blackmailed over a picture taken with a girl. The girl only wants a hundred bucks. It’s no big deal. Except that it leads to murder. A fairly solid episode with three quite convincing suspects.

A floating crap game is the background to Slay Upon Delivery. Bruce and Doris Green run the game and the game is not exactly honest. A thuggish ex-private detective named Murphy collects their bad debts for them. One of their customers who’s lost a lot of money is being difficult about paying up. The customer disappears and that’s where Hammer comes in. Hammer uses his customary methods (his fists) to get the information to solve the case. It’s a nicely seedy and very effectively hard-boiled little episode.

In Doll Trouble Mike decides to take a vacation so he heads off to Brussels to see the World’s Fair. And immediately finds himself with a case. A rich American woman thinks she’s located her sister’s daughter who apparently survived a concentration camp. But Mrs Putnam is no fool. She’s being asked for a lot of money and she suspects a con. Mike suspects that as well.

Now I’m quite sure that the producers didn’t come up with the money to send Darren McGavin to Belgium to film this episode but there is definitely plenty of location shooting that was done somewhere. Even if it was shot on the backlot it still manages to do a surprisingly good job of convincing us that it’s taking place in Brussels. This one has an expansive feel that is very very unusual for 50s American crime dramas. And it’s a reasonably good story with a fight sequence that is excellent even by the high standards of this series (no real surprises there since the episode was directed by William Witney who was incredibly good at that sort of thing).

Sometimes it’s better to leave the past well enough alone but that’s not how Oliver Bates sees things in I Remember Sally. He’s an old man and he’s dying and he wants to find Sally, a sweet young thing from Salt City South Dakota. But that was fifteen years ago and Hammer isn’t at all sure that Sally is the same sweet young girl that Oliver remembers. But Oliver Bates is determined to find her. Hammer finds her, but his suspicions about her were tragically correct. A good episode.

Wedding Mourning is an unexpected episode. Mike Hammer has fallen in love. That’s unusual enough. But he wants to get married. That’s very unusual. So unusual that the local bookies are offering odds on whether the wedding goes ahead or not. A good episode but very dark for network TV in 1959.

In Merchant of Menace a cheap hood named Gus Donovan, just out of the slammer, is making death threats against Hammer, which just happen to coincide with Hammer being out of town for a week. This leads to rumours that Mike is running scared and in his business he can’t afford that. So he has to find Donovan. This one has a plot with a neat twist. It’s good stuff.

In A Mugging Evening a businessman is set up by a girl in Central Park and his briefcase stolen. He can’t go to the police because he’s a married man, so he hires Hammer. All he wants is the briefcase back but the case takes a nasty turn. On the other hand Hammer does get to learn how to skate, with an attractive blonde as his teacher, so it’s not all bad. A good episode.

In Slab Happy broken-down prize-fighter Kid Dakota gets convinced that his ex-wife Julie’s new husband Mitch is beating her up. It’s a dangerous idea to put into the mind of a guy whose fists are lethal weapons, but who put that idea into his head and why? A pretty decent episode and it’s one of the rare occasions that Hammer finds himself in a fist-fight he can’t win.

Aces and Eights starts with Mike persuading a storekeeper not to prosecute a woman for shoplifting. She spins Mike a sob story which he swallows, and it turns out to be true. Her husband is being fleeced by card sharks but the mystery is how the crooks expect to collect their money from as guy who doesn’t have any. The explanation turns out to be rather sinister. A good solid episode. There’s a nice Mike Hammer moment were Mike administers a totally gratuitous but very amusing head-kicking to a bad guy.

Mike’s old buddy Emmett Gates has indulged in one too many extra-marital dalliances and now he’s being blackmailed in Swing Low, Sweet Harriet. And he could end up in much bigger trouble than that. A decent episode.

In Requiem for a Sucker a piano player is in debt to a loan shark and the loan shark is killed. The police draw the obvious conclusion, but maybe it’s the wrong one. Not a bad mystery in this one.

Mike is hired by a woman to investigate the death of her father in The Big Drop. He was an experienced window-cleaner and the daughter believes he could not possible have fallen to his death accidentally, therefore it must have been murder. It seems to have something to with a crooked investment scheme but maybe it’s a lot more complicated than that. A good episode in which Mike discovers he doesn’t like heights or breaking and entering or glamorous blondes who are a bit too coöperative.

Siamese Twinge is a story of true love running into a few obstacles. Gary Milford cute Thai singer-dancer Sondi are in love and want to marry. His mother is determined to wreck that and there’s someone else who is an even bigger threat to their wedding plans. Murder might be yet another obstacle. It’s none of Mike’s business but that never stops him. A pretty good episode with Mike’s distinctive technique for interviewing witnesses (involving extreme physical violence) proving to be as effective as ever.

In Goodbye, Al a two-bit gambler named Al Sparks wants Mike to get him off the hook for a gambling debt but Mike knows Al too well and he declines to help. Two weeks later Al is arrested for murder in a small lakeside town and Mike feels bad about it so now he has to help. This is going to lead to a confrontation with Todd Stryker who pretty much owns the town. A fairly routine episode.

Final Thoughts

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is one of the great private eye TV series and it stands up today remarkably well. It offers the perfect blend of energy, hardboiled mayhem and wry humour. Very highly recommended.

I've also reviewed season one.

Sunday 7 June 2020

Harry O - the pilot episodes (1973 and 1974)

The Fugitive made David Janssen a very big star. His career was a bit up-and-down after that. In 1973 he starred in a feature-length pilot for a proposed private eye series called Harry O. The pilot was Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On and it failed and the series was not picked up. A year later a second pilot, Smile Jenny, You're Dead, was made and this time Harry O was picked up by ABC.

The series was however destined to have a troubled history. The first 13 episodes were set in San Diego. Ratings were not all that great and the network decided the series was too unconventional. They demanded that it be transformed into a much more orthodox  private eye series, to be set in Los Angeles. So the second half of the first season was almost a different series. It was renewed for a second season, ratings were reasonable but ABC felt the series was still too intelligent and had worrying traces of originality. Harry O was cancelled in favour of Charlie’s Angels, a series dumb enough that even TV network executives could understand it.

It’s not difficult to see why Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On did not please the networks. It’s not so much that it’s rather dark. It’s more the character of Harry O (he’s actually Harry Orwell). He’s about as cheerful as you would expect a guy to be with a bullet lodged in his spine because when he was a cop some punk shot him during a robbery and now he’s in constant pain. And he’s  a very fallible private detective. He makes mistakes that put people in danger and he makes one really big, and costly, mistake. He chases women but most of the time he’s barely civil with his girlfriends. His sense of humour, such as it is, is pretty bleak. Harry Orwell isn’t loveable. He’s cynical. He doesn’t lack guts but he has no great interest in being a conventional hero. He’s not a white knight who rescues damsels in distress or helps out widows and orphans. He isn’t overly fond of people. He’s the sort of lead character who would make a network executive very nervous.

That’s not to say that he lacks charisma. It’s just that it’s a weird downbeat charisma. He’s actually a fascinating character. You want to find out more about him. But he’s not a conventional hero and network television likes conventional heroes.

I intensely disliked The Fugitive but that had nothing to do with David Janssen. I hated the concept of the Fugitive and I hated the scripts. Harry Orwell is a much more interesting character and David Janssen is perfect in the rôle. He gives a very low-key performance, in fact almost minimalist, but he doesn’t make Harry bland. Not at all. A really good actor in the right rôle can be low-key but still make a character fascinating and that’s what Janssen does.

Harry O - Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On
The plot has an intriguing premise. A guy breaks into his house and at gunpoint tries to force Harry to accept a large amount of money. The guy is Harlan Garrison (Martin Sheen) and he explains that he’s the guy who shot Harry four years ago. Now he wants Harry's help because the other guy involved in that robbery is trying to kill him.

Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On is smart and quirky and fascinating. No wonder the network executives hated it.

Now my guess is that Harry O creator Howard Rodman, who had been around the TV industry for a long time, knew that his idea for a slightly offbeat private eye series about a very offbeat private eye was a very good idea. But words like unconventional and offbeat make network executives break out in a cold sweat. So he decided that the only way to sell his idea to a network was to give the impression that Harry O was going to be an utterly conventional private eye series. Once he had persuaded a network to pick up the series he could always do his best to make it the offbeat series he’d always intended it to be. So when he wrote the script for the second pilot, Smile Jenny, You're Dead, he made it absolutely conventional. Five minutes into it you not only know every single thing that is going to happen, you know how it is going to happen. And sure enough that’s exactly how it happens.

It starts off with a model named Jennifer who wants a divorce so she can marry her new boyfriend. But there’s this photographer guy who’s obsessed with Jennifer and he decides he has to kill any man that Jennifer is involved with.

Harry of course falls for Jennifer. It’s difficult to understand why anyone would want anything to do with Jennifer - even by the standards of airhead fashion models she’s selfish, shallow and not very bright. But the detective has to fall in love with the woman who’s in danger. Anything else would be vaguely original and Smile Jenny, You're Dead avoids originality like poison.

Not surprisingly the ABC network executives absolutely loved it and Harry O was picked up as a series.

David Janssen and Jodie Foster in Smile Jenny, You're Dead
It’s soul-crushingly unoriginal but it is well-made, Harry Orwell is a good character and David Janssen is very good. Of course Harry Orwell was a much more interesting character, and David Janssen’s performance was much better, in the first pilot. The first pilot was also much less afflicted by sentimentality.

The sub-plot with Jodie Foster is quite amusing but like everything else about Smile Jenny, You're Dead it was a wasted opportunity - both Jodie Foster and David Janssen were capable of doing a lot more with that sub-plot.

It’s perfectly understandable that Smile Jenny, You're Dead is the way it is. There is nothing that warms the heart of a TV network executive more than that combination of predictability, maudlin sentimentality and unoriginality. If you want to get to make a TV series you have to make the network execs think that you’re going to give them something absolutely safe. Once you’ve persuaded them to give you the green light you can try to make your actual series witty and intelligent and original. You might even get away with it for the first season. That seems to have been the trajectory followed by Harry O - a quirky and incredibly interesting first two-thirds of season one before the network lowered the boom and insisted on the removal of disturbing original ideas.

Even with the network pushing the series in the direction of risk-averse conventionality the first season of Harry O is still surprisingly good and I’ll be having much more to say about it in the near future.

In the meantime Such Dust As Dreams Are Made On (which is included in the season one boxed set) is very highly recommended while Smile Jenny, You're Dead (released separately) is reasonably entertaining.

Monday 1 June 2020

Hammer House of Horror (1980), part two

Hammer House of Horror is a 1980 horror anthology television series that represented a desperate tempt to revive the failing fortunes of Hammer Films. They had made their final horror film, To the Devil…a Daughter, in 1976. With both the company and the British film industry languishing television seemed like it might be a lifeline. As things transpired, after one further attempt at a television series, the company proved to be doomed anyway

My review of the fist half-dozen episodes can be found here.

Watching the remaining episodes confirms my favourable initial impression - Hammer House of Horror is actually an extremely good series. Television proved to be an ideal medium for the company.

Despite their financial woes Hammer managed to assemble some remarkably good casts, and some fine directors. Production values are fairly high. If the company was going to be saved the series was going to have to do well in the U.S. market so it had to look polished and slick and obviously had to be shot on 35mm. The aim was to get as much of a cinematic look as possible and that aim is reasonably well achieved.

Obviously for television Hammer had to tone down the gore and the nudity compared to their early 70s movies. There’s still a small amount of gore and occasional glimpses of nudity.

Hammer decided to go for contemporary settings which of course had the advantage of keeping budgets within reasonable limits. They had not however abandoned gothic horror. They had merely moved gothic horror into the world of 1980 (and gothic horror in contemporary settings was something they’d experimented with in some of their early 70s movies). They also elected to go for a slightly ambiguous approach to the supernatural. There’s still plenty of supernatural horror but at times the stories deal with very human non-supernatural evil and when they do deal with supernatural themes the episodes often lead the viewer to believe that the events may turn out to have perfectly natural explanations.

As with all anthology series there’s some unevenness but overall the standard is quite impressive.

This series continued Hammer’s run of bad luck. It was successful, the ratings were good and ITC (who’d backed it) wanted a second batch of thirteen episodes which might well have been enough to put the company back on its feet. But somehow the deal fell through and it took Hammer several years to find the backing for their final last-ditch attempt at salvation, the much less successful Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense.

Episode Guide

The Carpathian Eagle opens with a man picking up a sexy hitch-hiker. He takes her to his little love nest hideaway (which he assures her his wife knows nothing about) but he gets more than they bargained for. In fact he gets his heart cut out. Literally.

When a second murder following the exact same pattern occurs Detective Inspector Clifford (Anthony Valentine) starts to get really worried.

He has a lead but it’s a really crazy lead. These killings cannot possibly have anything to do with a notorious seventeenth century countess who killed 107 men, and yet there are some striking parallels and he doesn’t have any other leads so he has to follow it up.

The audience is going to know the killer’s identity from the start but Inspector Clifford doesn’t know so the red herrings that are introduced serve to throw Clifford rather than the viewer off the track.

The killer sees her victims as men who prey on women. In fact while they’re a bit sleazy they all do assume that the women they pick up are more than willing. It’s the killer who is a woman who preys on men.

This episode has several major strengths. Firstly there’s the cast. Anthony Valentine was always reliable. He plays Clifford as a good experienced cop but one with very human weaknesses. Siân Phillips (who remarkably is still today a busy working actress in her late 80s) is memorable as the last living descendant of that infamous 17th century countess. And then there’s Suzanne Danielle whose performance is strange, subtle, incredibly sexy and very very effective. You’ll also see Pierce Brosnan in a very small very early rôle.

Mostly The Carpathian Eagle works because it has all the classic Hammer ingredients. It has imaginative production design and it has style. It oozes an atmosphere of death, sex and violence without actually having to show too much. And mostly it demonstrates that ability Hammer had to to gothic horror in a contemporary setting and make it work.

We’re in the realm of black magic in Guardian of the Abyss (directed by Don Sharp). Antiques dealer Laura picks up a worthless mirror at an auction, only it’s not a mirror it’s a scrying glass and it may have belonged to notorious Elizabethan occultist and magician Dr John Dee. The scrying glass can be used in rituals to summon demons and a local occult group led by the sinister Charles Randolph (John Carson) is planning to summon a particularly powerful demon indeed.

Meanwhile Laura’s friend Michael (Ray Lonnen) has become involved with the gorgeous Allison (Rosalyn Landor) and Allison is on the run from that occult group. It seems they intend to sacrifice her but Michael doesn’t want to lose his sexy new girlfriend. He’s going to have to keep her and the scrying glass away from Randolph.

This one is very such in the style of The Devil Rides Out, one of the very best of the Hammer films. It’s all totally outrageous and if you think about it too much you might even conclude that it’s a bit silly but it has so much style and energy that if you just go with it you’ll find yourself thoroughly enjoying it. John Carson is delightfully evil and megalomaniacal, Paul Darrow is very good as one of his chief acolytes, Ray Lonnen makes a fine hero who does his best but is hopelessly out of his depth and Rosalyn Landor is the kind of girl you’d happily sacrifice your soul for.

There are some genuinely creepy and scary moments, the special effects are adequate and it looks great. Like The Carpathian Eagle it successfully combines a contemporary setting with lots of gothic atmosphere.

Visitor from the Grave is a Peter Sasdy-directed episode with a script by long-time Hammer producer and writer Anthony Hinds.

Penny (Kathryn Leigh Scott) lives in an isolated cottage in the countryside. A man breaks into her house and tries to rape her so she shoots him. The problem, as her boyfriend Harry (Simon MacCorkindale) explains to her, is that this is likely to get her sent back to the mental hospital. But Harry will take care of everything. No-one will ever know.

And Charlie (the man who tried to rape her) is dead. He can’t come back. Dead people don’t come back. They don’t, do they?

The problem with this one is that it’s a bit too obvious what’s going on. That still leaves the question of how it's going to resolved but unfortunately the ending is also rather obvious. It’s also very over-the-top with Kathryn Leigh Scott, Simon MacCorkindale, Mia Nadasi (as a crazy psychic) and Gareth Thomas (as the swami called in to help) all frantically chewing the scenery. A disappointing episode.

The Mark of Satan begins with a man dying on the operating table, crying out to someone to leave his soul alone. It seems that the unfortunate Mr Holt thought that Satan had taken possession of his body (or his soul). Mr Holt had then taken an electric drill to his own head.

Mortuary attendant Edwyn Rord (Peter McEnery) is a decent enough chap but seems to be a bit preoccupied with odd things, like the number nine which he sees everywhere. He’s the kind of guy who obsesses over such things and the fact that Mr Holt’s body is stored in drawer number nine in the freezer disturbs him. He starts to brood rather too much and starts showing some definite signs of paranoia. He thinks he may be infected with evil the way poor Mr Holt was. He also broods about his mother and about his lodger, a young single mother named Stella. Edwyn’s mental state is starting to become highly unstable, with very unfortunate consequences.

Here’s a bit more gore in this one than in most episodes, and there are some marked touches of black comedy. It’s quite an ambitious story with plenty of deliberate ambiguity. Edwyn’s obsessions are obviously crazy, or are they? None of the events he witnesses are possible, unless of course evil really is loose in the world. There’s a good hallucinatory scene which may be a glimpse into the depths of Edwyn’s paranoia or may be a glimpse into the truth. The black comedy enhances the sense of weirdness and uncertainty. The Mark of Satan is a bold attempt to persuade the viewer to doubt everything that he sees and it succeeds surprisingly well.

The House That Bled to Death is pretty obviously going to be some sort of haunted house story. William and Emma Peters with their little girl Sophie have just bought the house in question, at 42 Colman Road. Some years earlier a horrible murder had been committed in the house but they don’t know that. They will find out when the house turns against them.

This might seem like a very conventional story but stick with it because it isn’t conventional at all. There are twists, and very satisfying ones. David Lloyd’s screenplay is a clever one and director Tom Clegg provides some real scares.

This episode ups the ante in the gore department. It’s not excessive but there’s more than you expect in TV of this era. There’s also a topless scene so Hammer were going all out with this one.

It all pays off. One of the strongest episodes in the series.

In Children of the Full Moon Sarah and Tom have a very frightening episode with their car. Fortunately there’s a house nearby. Mrs Ardoy (Diana Dors) welcomes them and she seems like such a jolly soul. And the house sounds like it’s full of children. It’s all very reassuring, even if Mrs Ardoy seems rather vague about the children. The viewer already knows, from the pre-credits sequence, that these may be rather disturbing children. Given the title and the pre-credits sequence I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that there are going to be werewolves.

Hammer House of Horror - The Two Faces of Evil
The script is, alas, rather predictable. You’re not going to have any problems at any stage guessing what’s going to happen next. On the plus side it’s all very well executed and it has its creepy gothic moments and some scares. It also has an excellent cast with Diana Dors walking away with the acting honours (as she usually did). At this late stage of her career she was just so good at being sweet and sinister at the same time. Not a terrible episode but badly lacking in original twists.

The Two Faces of Evil establishes a nicely creepy mood right from the start. Janet and Martin and their son David are driving on a quiet country road when they are caught in a torrential downpour. They pick up a hitch-hiker who immediately viciously attacks Martin and the car crashes. All this takes place in the pre-credits sequence.

Janet wakes up in hospital. She is relieved to hear that her husband and son also survived the crash but there’s something disturbing going on. Both the surgeon and the ward sister behave very oddly towards her. Even the police constable who interviews Janet seems to act just a little bit strangely about the accident. But at least her husband and son are alive so for Janet the nightmare is over. Or is it?

As you watch this one you’ll figure out that there are several alternative explanations for what is going on but there’s just no way to be sure. And so the creepiness builds. This is a very fine episode.

Final Thoughts

Most of the thirteen episodes are at least very good and several are excellent. Even the few that are a bit weaker are still quite watchable. The overall standard is remarkably high for an anthology series. Hammer really were on a potential winner here and it’s a tragedy that they weren’t able to capitalise on this success.

Hammer House of Horror is very highly recommended.