Tuesday 14 February 2023

Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense

Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense was Hammer Films’ last desperate effort to save itself. Their final feature film was To the Devil…a Daughter in 1976. Due to unfortunate financial decisions, failed to make them any money. The British film industry was on its last legs and things were about to get worse, with home video about to arrive and drive the final nail in the coffin. Hammer’s decision to move away from movies into television was actually quite sound.

It’s a decision which should have worked. Hammer House of Horror, made in 1980, was well received and the ratings were healthy. The American network was initially keen on the idea of a second season. Sadly the deal fell through. Without the US network onboard the series was doomed.

Hammer House of Horror did demonstrate that Hammer could do TV horror extremely well. And by the late 70s it was becoming obvious that TV was more suited to Hammer’s style of horror. At the beginning of the 70s Hammer had realised that they needed to vary their formula, and that they needed to add more blood and more sex and more nudity. Their late 1960s efforts were starting to seem a bit tame and a bit stodgy. Hammer responded by making a series of extremely interesting early 70s horror films, with the extra blood, sex and nudity. But Hammer never seemed entirely comfortable with the idea of erotic horror. It just isn’t British. They preferred to leave that sort of thing to the Europeans who were very comfortable indeed with the concept. On TV however they could make the kind of horror that they were comfortable with, a bit bloody but not too much so and with just enough sexiness.

With Hammer House of Horror they hadn’t extricated themselves from their financial mess but the results of the series were still moderately encouraging. In 1984 they tried again, with Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense.

This new series was a co-production with Fox’s TV arm in the US. That caused problems from the start. Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense was too rushed, and to please their American partners the series had to be squeaky clean, bland and inoffensive. If Hammer were uneasy about sex they were to find that American TV preferred to pretend that sex just didn’t exist.

The episodes have a 70-minute running time, presumably at the insistence of the American partners who intended the series to be screened as a mystery movie series. The running times are definitely too long in some cases. Some of the episodes are a bit slower than they should have been, with not quite enough plot to justify the movie-length running times. But it's only a problem with some episodes.

The Americans presumably also insisted on imported American stars. 

Episode Guide

The Sweet Scent of Death was directed by Peter Sasdy. It was written by Brian Clemens so it’s no surprise that it plays out exactly like an episode from his 1970s anthology series Thriller. If you’re a Thriller fan you’ll know what to expect. The plot twists are done reasonably well but some key aspects of the story are a bit too predictable.

Dean Stockwell (an actor I have never been able to warm to) plays an American diplomat in England. Shirley Knight plays his wife Ann. Someone seems to be out to get Ann, although it’s not clear just how serious the threat might be. The prologue suggests to us that there’s a connection to events in New York ten years earlier.

There’s an obvious suspect on whom the police focus their attention but the viewer will immediately realise that there are three or possibly even four alternative suspects.

Peter Sasdy directs the episode competently. It’s an OK episode but just a bit on the bland side.

A Distant Scream
, written by Martin Worth and directed by John Hough, is more interesting. An elderly man is dying. He spent the lest few decades of his life locked up for the murder of his girlfriend years earlier. He has always proclaimed his innocence and has been obsessed with finding the real killer. Close to death, he is transported back in time (presumably by supernatural or paranormal means) and is able to witness the two days leading up to his girlfriend’s murder.

The old man is Michael (David Carradine). At the time of the murder Michael was a freelance photographer spending a holiday at a fishing village with his girlfriend Rosemary (Stephanie Beacham). She’s a married woman with whom he is having an affair.

Michael as an old man is not only able to witness the events leading up to the tragedy, he can interact with the people involved. Rosemary can see him. He can talk to her. At times others can see him and speak with him. Even his younger self sees him at one point.

This of course involves one of those famous time travel paradoxes. If he can interact with people in the past then he should logically be able to change the past. I was rather interested to see whether the scriptwriter (Martin Worth) was aware of the time travel paradox and if so how he was going to deal with it. Or whether he was simply going to ignore it.

The weak link in this episode is David Carradine. He just can’t act. There’s another problem - as a dying old man he looks younger healthier than he does as his younger self. Stephanie Beacham’s performance on the other hand is quite solid.

The Late Nancy Irving, written by David Fisher and directed by Peter Sasdy, concerns a lady golf champion. She has diabetes but it’s always been well controlled. She also has an incredibly rare blood type.

Then she wakes up in hospital. She is told that she crashed her car. She has only vague garbled memories of some kind of car accident. She is assured that her injuries are not all that severe. What worries her is that she feels rather confused. Her mind seems foggy. She is a bit disturbed by the bars on the windows of her private room but she is given a reasonably plausible explanation. The bars date from a time when the clinic treated mental patients who might try to throw themselves from windows. Of course she isn’t being locked in and she’s silly to think such a thing.

Gradually she becomes a little worried. Why hasn’t she heard from her fiancé? Why hasn’t she heard from anyone? Why does she feel so weak? And why are they giving her blood transfusions? And then she sees a story on the TV news and she starts to get the picture.

The main problem here is that while the basic idea is excellent there are not enough plot twists to sustain a 70-minute running time. The excessive length weakens the suspense. Cristina Raines in the lead rôle is also just a little bland. This is an OK episode that could have been a great episode.

Black Carrion was written by Don Houghton and directed by John Hough. Journalist Paul Taylor (Leigh Lawson) is hired to write an article about the Verne Brothers. They were (according to the story) a hugely successful pop duo who disappeared in 1963. Totally disappeared. No-one knows what happened to them. They were never heard from again. To Taylor it’s obvious that this is a promising story. Researcher/photographer Cora Berlaine (Season Hubley) has been assigned to assist him. Cora has a prodigious knowledge of 60s pop music.

Cora is troubled by memories. Disturbing but totally disjointed memories. Are they real memories? She thinks so but of course she can’t be sure.

The search for the Verne Brothers takes Paul and Cora to the village of Briar’s Frome. It was rumoured that the Verne Brothers were going to buy the palatial manor house there. The village is deserted. It’s a ghost town. But weird things are happening in Briar’s Frome, and Cora’s memories are getting more vivid.

The plot is all over the place and there’s some silliness but there are lots of great ideas (and even original ideas) in this episode. And lots of creepy atmosphere. I enjoyed this episode a great deal.

In Possession was written by Michael J. Bird and directed by Val Guest. Frank Daly (Christopher Cazenove) and his wife Sylvia (Carol Lynley) reach their hotel room only to find that it’s already occupied by a woman and an old lady. When they fetch the manager to sort things out the woman and the lady have vanished. Then Frank sees them again by the river, and again they vanish.

Frank and Sylvia start seeing various people in their flat. People who are not there. But they seem very real. Slowly it becomes obvious that in some way Frank and Sylvia are witnessing events that lead to a murder. Is this a shared dream? Or is it something that happened in the past?

Whether you consider this episode to be a haunted house story depends on how broadly you define that term. Whether this counts as a haunted house story doesn’t really matter. It’s a fascinatingly weird and disturbing tale with some real moments of terror and creepiness. An excellent episode.

And the Wall Came Tumbling Down was written by Dennis Spooner and John Peacock and directed by Paul Annett. An old deconsecrated church is being demolished by the Ministry of Defence. There’s a mysterious accident on the site, and we then get a flashback to events in 1949, events involving a coven of devil-worshippers. The devil-worshippers are betrayed by a young man. More than three centuries later another young man has a peculiar interest in this old church.

As you may have guessed the world of the 1980s is about to encounter evil from the 17th century. Maybe not wildly original but it plays out in a very satisfactory manner with plenty of gothic atmosphere and some real creepiness. Caroline Trent (Barbi Benton) works for the government but her real interest is in the occult. She isn’t sure what is going on with that old church but she knows that Dark Forces are at work. The site manager Peter Whiteway (Gareth Hunt) doesn’t believe her, at least not at first.

This one has an interesting cast. There’s Gareth Hunt (best-known for The New Avengers), the wonderful Peter Wyngarde from Department S and Jason King and there’s Barbi Benton, best known as a Playboy model. Hunt is very good, Wyngarde is sinister and charismatic and Barbi Benton is quite OK. It all builds to a satisfying conclusion. A very good episode.

Child's Play was written by Graham Wassell and directed by Val Guest. Mike and Ann Preston are a young couple with a daughter. They wake up in the middle of the night to discover something very odd and disturbing. They have been walled in. Their whole house has been walled in. And it’s getting rather hot. The telephone doesn’t work. The radio doesn’t work. The TV works, but every station has nothing but a station identification logo and it’s the same logo on every channel.

They haven’t noticed it yet but that logo has appeared on all sorts of items in the house. It’s getting hotter and they’re close to giving way to panic.

Mike comes up with various plans to break through the wall but it seems impossible. The two of them also come up with possible explanations. The actual explanation is one they hadn’t considered, and it’s pretty clever. There are some clues but I certainly didn’t guess the solution. This is a nicely scary creepy story, a bit like a good Twilight Zone episode. A very fine episode.

Paint Me a Murder
was written by Jesse Lasky Jr and Pat Silver and directed by Alan Cooke. Painter Luke Lorenz finishes a painting then gets into a rowing boat and heads out to sea. He then smashes through the planking of the boat. His body is not found. Suicide is assumed.

He wasn’t a very successful painter when alive but now that he’s dead his paintings start to fetch huge prices. That’s good news for his widow Sandra (Michelle Phillips). And for art dealer Vincent Rhodes (David Robb).

The major early twist won’t come as much of a surprise but the twists do keep coming. I liked this episode.

Tennis Court was written by Andrew Sinclair and Michael Hastings and directed by Cyril Frankel. This is a haunted tennis court story. A middle-aged woman, Maggie (Hannah Gordon), inherits an old but moderately palatial country house. She has recently married Harry Dowd, a Member of Parliament. In the grounds of the house is an indoor tennis court. Slightly odd things happen on that tennis court. It has some connection to events many years earlier, during the war. A British bomber was shot down. One member of the crew survived. They other did not.

The local vicar, John Bray (Peter Graves), knows something about that wartime incident. At the time he was a Canadian volunteer in the R.A.F. and he was there.

Maggie is becoming increasingly terrified of whatever is in that tennis court.

Not one of my favourite episodes, but entertaining enough.

The Corvini Inheritance was written by David Fisher and directed by Gabrielle Beaumont. This one starts with a young woman, Eva Bailey, encountering a peeping tom. She is unharmed but rather scared. And it starts with a robbery at a fine art auction room.

Frank Lane (David McCallum) is in charge of security at the auction room. He also happens to live in the same building as Eva. Frank offers to help make Eva’s flat more secure. They have dinner together. Frank is divorced and a bit lonely but he’s a nice guy.

Frank has a big security job on. The Corvini inheritance, a fabulous collection of jewels amassed in Italy during the Renaissance by a family of professional assassins, is to be auctioned. It will be in the keeping of the auctioneers for several weeks. It’s an obvious target for professional thieves. The most valuable piece in the collection is a necklace with a grim history. It may be cursed.

There are two plot strands here. Someone seems to be stalking Eva, and there’s the possibility of an attempt to steal the Corvini jewels. I liked this one a lot. There’s some nice ambiguity here.

Czech Mate was written by Jeremy Burnham and directed by John Hough. This is a straightforward Cold War spy thriller but it’s nicely executed with plenty of cynicism and paranoia. Susan George plays an Englishwoman, Vicky Duncan, caught up in a web of deceit and betrayal behind the Iron Curtain. In this story there is no difference whatever between the good guys and the bad guys. People disappear and corpses turn up and Vicky discovers that she can’t trust anyone.

Susan George and Patrick Mower (as her ex-husband) give excellent performances and it’s always nice to see Peter Vaughan in anything. This episode is a bit out of place in this series but it’s entertaining.

Last Video and Testament was written by Roy Russell and Robert Quigley and directed by Peter Sasdy. Victor Frankham (David Langton) owns a vast electronic empire. He has a heart condition and he has a much younger wife, Selena (Deborah Raffin). A much younger wife who may be looking elsewhere for certain pleasures which her husband can no longer provide. Victor’s doctor has been encouraging him to have an operation. An operation which will restore his vitality in the bedroom, which may not be to Selena’s liking.

Victor has a surprise in store for Selena, in the form of a videotape.

This one has quite a clever central idea and it works very nicely.

Final Thoughts

This is an extremely good series, much much better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Highly recommended.

The German Pidax DVD boxed set includes all thirteen episodes, in English with removable German subtitles. The box cover suggests that it only includes eleven episodes but it definitely includes all thirteen. The transfers are perfectly acceptable.