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Kudos to vault raider Michael Schlesinger and others at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment for digging up six lesser-known features from the fabled fright factory Hammer Films, out now on DVD for the first time in this above-average three-disc collection. Though best known for their Gothic horror reworkings—CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, THE MUMMY, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, et al.—the British studio (1935-1978) produced a wide variety of films, from ribald comedies to period swashbucklers.
Hammer also proved efficient at churning out Hitchcockian/William Castle-style thrillers, four of which (STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!, MANIAC, THE SNORKEL and NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER) have been collected on ICONS OF SUSPENSE, along with a caper film (CASH ON DEMAND) and a meditative science fiction drama (THESE ARE THE DAMNED). These films were all produced in the late ’50s/early ’60s, and a few were even cut by as much as 10 minutes (…THE DAMNED) when issued in the U.S. by co-production distributor Columbia Pictures. All six are being presented in their original uncut forms and in sharp black and white, with digitally remastered picture and audio.
STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! (a.k.a. THE FULL TREATMENT): Hammer vet Val Guest (THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, the first two QUATERMASS films) directed and co-wrote this 1961 psychological suspenser set largely in the south of France. A troubled race-car driver (Ronald Lewis) and his wife (Diane Cilento) are vacationing there to recover from a near-fatal auto accident that has made Lewis emotionally cold and physically abusive toward his remarkably understanding newlywed. The couple meet an overly friendly psychiatrist (Claude Dauphin) who volunteers to treat the hothead for his anger-management issues, but also secretly lusts after the oblivious wife. Nicely shot by legendary cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (STAR WARS, 1976’s THE OMEN), STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! gets sillier and more implausible as it goes along, especially when it comes to swallowing how clueless Cilento (who reportedly suffered at the “big hands” of ex-husband Sean Connery in real life) must be not to see through the fast-talking shrink’s machinations and manipulations.
CASH ON DEMAND: This edge-of-your-seat drama from 1961 is sort of Hammer’s version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, of all things. Peter Cushing (in one of his best performances) plays a whip-cracking taskmaster of a bank manager who makes life unpleasant for his overworked staff during the holiday season. Enter phony insurance inspector Andre Morrell, who turns up in Cushing’s office and quickly reveals his scheme to empty the bank vaults. The urbane crook forces the manager to cooperate with the robbery by threatening the man’s taken-hostage family. While pushing Cushing around, Morrell also berates him for his lack of people skills and teaches him a thing or two. Directed by THE CRAWLING EYE’s Quentin Lawrence, the rarely screened CASH ON DEMAND is a real find, with crackling dialogue, nail-biting tension and superb performances by the two leads. The ending could have been a bit darker, but then its Dickensian message would have been lost.
THE SNORKEL: Italian horrormeister Antonio Margheriti (a.k.a. Anthony M. Dawson; CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS, HORROR CASTLE) came up with the story for this nifty 1958 suspenser, co-scripted by Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster. The title refers to the underwater mask that a murderer (Peter van Eyck) dons while gassing his rich, unsuspecting wife to death at their Italian villa. When their young teen daughter (Mary Miller) returns home, she immediately suspects her stepfather, whom she saw drown her biological father years ago—but, as happens now, no one believed her. After offing the girl’s snooping dog, evil stepdad sets his sights on killing the kid as well. THE SNORKEL plays like a prototype of TV’s COLUMBO, with Miller doggedly whittling away at van Eyck’s alibis and harassing him. Of course, no one takes her seriously, until it’s almost too late. Directed by Guy Green (an Oscar-winning DP), THE SNORKEL rates as a pretty clever thriller, noteworthy for its opening murder scene and the closer in which the villain tries to duplicate his crime. This would have garnered another half star if the studio had kept the movie’s initial, nastier ending.
MANIAC: Sangster also scripted this 1963 thriller, which bears no relation to the Dwain Esper or William Lustig movies of the same name. Putting down his sword for a paint brush, former Sinbad Kerwin Mathews stars as a playboy artist decompressing in a sleepy town in southern France, where he begins flirting with both an innkeeper (Nadia Gray) and her sexy teenage stepdaughter (Liliane Brousse). Four years earlier, the young lass had been raped by a local pervert; the girl’s revenge-crazed father then murdered the assailant with an acetylene torch, went nuts and was promptly confined to an insane asylum. When his wife falls for Mathews, she hatches a plot to help the husband escape if he will allow the lovers to remain together. Soon bodies are turning up in trunks, and the psychotic fugitive (a wildly overplaying Donald Houston, resembling Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove) starts reigniting his old torch… Double-crosses, surprise plot twists, last-minute revelations and a Hitchcock-style chase in an underground rock quarry render MANIAC (directed by studio executive Michael Carreras) quite implausible in the end, but entertaining nonetheless.
NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER (a.k.a. NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER): Hammer really went out on a limb with this 1959 movie, about the real-life horrors of pedophilia. Set in Canada, the story follows a couple of adolescent girls who fail to take the titular advice and fall prey to a lecherous old man (Felix Aylmer). When the family of one of the kids decides to prosecute the sleazebag, they meet resistance from the town and law, who try to discourage them from pressing charges—since the accused father and his son hold power, status and wealth in the small community. The trial goes as planned, but the victim is put through the wringer on the stand by a merciless defense attorney (played by CURSE OF THE DEMON’s Niall MacGinnis). The culprit goes unpunished, leading to further tragedy in the end. NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER is a low-key, unsensationalistic approach to sensitive subject matter, and director Cyril Frankel and scripter John Hunter (working from Roger Caris’ play THE PONY CART) deserve credit for their restraint. The most horrific part of the film is the silent fiend stalking the girls in the woods like a senile Frankenstein monster. Both NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER and CASH ON DEMAND have hardly dated at all.
THESE ARE THE DAMNED: Blacklisted American director Joseph Losey (whose creepy 1951 film noir THE PROWLER has been restored and sent out on the repertory circuit this year) helmed this unusual and haunting sci-fi melodrama that sat on the shelf on both sides of the pond. Losey shot the film in 1961, but it did not open till two years later in the UK (paired with MANIAC) and four years later in the U.S. (shorn of 23 minutes). The strange movie begins with wealthy American Macdonald Carey flirting with the wrong girl (Shirley Ann Field), whose psychopathically jealous brother (an intense Oliver Reed) fronts a gang of motorcycle-riding hoodlums. The bikers beat and rob Carey, who later hooks up with the chick on his yacht but again runs afoul of Reed and co. The meandering storyline (based on the novel THE CHILDREN OF LIGHT by H.L. Lawrence) eventually finds Carey and his new lover prisoners at a secret government installation that guards a group of “special” children (avoid spoilers on this one). Though the screenplay of THESE ARE THE DAMNED (just THE DAMNED in its native country) is extremely schizophrenic, Losey is arguably the finest director to ever work in the Hammer stable; his action and camerawork are fluid, and he derives offbeat performances from his stars (Reed at his menacing best, and also including CREEPSHOW’s Viveca Lindfors and Walter Gotell of several James Bond films). The film’s elegiac tone will remind you of other inexorably downbeat Cold War sci-fi dramas like ON THE BEACH. At first, you may not know where you are going while watching THESE ARE THE DAMNED, but once you arrive at the ending, it’s a movie you won’t easily forget.
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