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.


  1. ITC really did have an appalling record when it came to backing shows that were winners with the public. The number of times I've heard or read that a series got cancelled purely because of decisions at ITC is ridiculous

    1. ITC really did have an appalling record when it came to backing shows that were winners with the public. The number of times I've heard or read that a series got cancelled purely because of decisions at ITC is ridiculous

      A lot of that was down to Lew Grade. He cancelled Department S and Return of the Saint, both hit series. If a series wasn't an instant success in the US he cancelled it. He was obsessed by the idea of success in America. Ironically, given a second season, Return of the Saint probably would have broken through in the US.

      The Champions was another case of ITC sabotaging one of its own series. Lew Grade also cancelled Thunderbirds at the height of its popularity, much to Gerry Anderson's dismay..