Blu-ray Review: THE WITCHES

One of Hammer’s strongest ’60s shockers comes to Blu-ray from Scream Factory

Director Cyril Frankel’s 1966 supernatural drama THE WITCHES (based on the novel “The Devil’s Own” by Peter Curtis) might be one of Hammer’s most misunderstood and undervalued productions, with casual admirers of the venerable studio’s output often either ignoring or dismissing it. This is likely due to the film being released squarely in the center of Hammer’s “Golden Age”, when the company had had a near decade-long paydirt mining and perfecting Gothic melodrama and more sensational shockers. It defied audience expectations and needs, in some respects. But Frankel’s eerie mystery is more in-line with the studio’s post-PSYCHO “Mini-Hitchcock” thrillers, material like Frankel’s own queasy NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM STRANGERS, but one armed with a supernatural twist and buoyed by two mature female leads in the cast. But unlike Hammer’s 1965 scenery-chomper DIE, DIE MY DARLING – in which an aged and deranged Talulah Bankhead out-babied BABY JANE – THE WITCHES is no pandering horror-hagsploitation potboiler. It’s something far more evolved and interesting (and I say that with ardent adoration of the hagsploitation subgenre).

THE WITCHES stars Hollywood legend Joan Fontaine (Hitchcock’s REBECCA) as hard-nosed school teacher Gwen Mayfield who, after enduring a nightmarish experience in Africa (a berserk pre-credits sequence featuring monstrous witch doctors and tiki-men bursting into her classroom while Fontaine collapses, screaming), has endured a right and proper nervous breakdown. Once back on her feet, she accepts a job teaching the children of a tiny rural English Hamlet, an ideal position in a seemingly idyllic and peaceful community. However, almost from the moment she arrives, Gwen suspects something is “off”. The local minister turns out not to be a minister at all, despite wearing the collar for “comfort”; odd pagan talismans appear in tree trunks; some of the population seem to be in a kind of somnambulist state; and the town seems to be trying very hard to sabotage the budding romance between a pair of perfectly sweet and healthy teenagers. When people begin to die and Gwen starts to believe the whispers of witchcraft drifting through the village, she aims to do something about it, an act she might live to regret.

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Blu-ray Review: DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Scream Factory re-releases the classic Terrence Fisher vampire film on Blu-ray

There’s a vibrancy, urgency and sense of danger about the early Hammer Gothics, especially the ones helmed by the great Terrence Fisher. The studio laid out their stylistic, thematic mission statement with Fisher’s full-color, full-blooded revisits of the Universal monster warhorses – 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA, respectively – and kept that momentum up, offering more violent, sexually aware, sophisticated and lurid horror movies, a majority of them blasted onto screens in astonishing color. The look and feel of these films (and naturally, the chord they struck with audiences) birthed the later Roger Corman Poe Gothics and the early Italian Gothics of the 1960s, but there’s really nothing quite like those startling, bouncy, signature Hammer romps…

By the time HORROR OF DRACULA’s Christopher Lee returned to the cape with Fisher at the helm in 1966’s DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the worm was already turning with both Hammer and the world of horror cinema in general and thus the picture has perpetually felt a bit late-from-the-gate, a bit trapped between worlds. Fisher had already proved he could make a Dracula picture without Lee (and without Dracula for that matter) with 1960’s thundering BRIDES OF DRACULA (still this writer’s fave of the Hammer Dracula cycle) but revisiting the franchise with the actor, who by now was an international horror movie superstar, was enough of an event that DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS was a huge hit for the studio and kept Lee in costume for the next 7 years. And while DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS pales in comparison to HORROR (and suffers from the lack of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing save for an opening flashback of HORROR’s spastic ending), it’s still an atmospheric, stylish affair and sees Fisher directing with vigor. And Lee, despite playing the part totally mute (according to him because he hated the dialogue, though others have insisted the part was written as such), reminds us why he’s the screen’s definitive Count Dracula.

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UK Blu-ray Review: THE VAMPIRE LOVERS

by Dave Wain
Sheridan Le Fanu, the famed Irish author of Gothic tales and mystery stories first published Carmilla in 1871. This tale of a lustful female vampire predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by just over a quarter of a century, and Stoker’s tale certainly displays a multitude of similarities to hint at a degree of influence being had from Le Fanu’s story. In the celluloid universe Dracula has of course been adapted a myriad of times, Carmilla less so – Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR and Roger Vadim’s ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR being two notable film versions, but it was with Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS that Carmilla would perhaps receive its most faithful retelling.
Making her Hammer debut is Ingrid Pitt who plays the seductive Marcilla Karnstein. Finding herself in the care of General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) and his family in Styria, Austria, Marcilla becomes close to the General’s niece, Laura (Pippa Steel). This bond is short-lived however when Laura experiences a slow death plagued with prolonged sickness. Marcilla, leaving the scene of this tragedy adopts the alias ‘Carmilla’ and settles into a new abode, this time at the home of Mr. Morton (George Cole) whose daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) she grows close to and ultimately seduces. Such nefarious behaviour arouses suspicion in the household, but with the addition of an accomplice in Madame Perrodot (Kate O’Mara), Carmilla becomes a seemingly unstoppable threat.
The beginning of the 1970s accelerated what was already becoming a new dawn in the world of European horror. With the emergence of such iconic directors as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Jess Franco as well as the Naschy / Klimovsky collaborations, Hammer were in danger of being classed as a relic of days gone by. Therefore the introduction of the Karnstein Trilogy of films which http://healthsavy.com/product/cipro/ would continue with LUST FOR A VAMPIRE the following year and then TWINS OF EVIL the year after proved that Hammer were able to move with the times – albeit at the risk of alienating a portion of their fanbase due to these pictures overt sexuality.
It would be very easy to cast aside THE VAMPIRE LOVERS as simply a desperate attempt by Hammer to remain relevant, but in actual fact it’s a classy picture which with its literature based narrative it easily lifts the film into the upper echelons of Hammer’s cannon; its eroticism defining the film as a watershed moment in the studios history. Despite the appearance of both Cushing and George Cole, it’s Ingrid Pitt who makes THE VAMPIRE LOVERS such a worthy movie – and she crucially offers a performance with depth and nuance that far exceeds the simple ‘buxom beauty’ moniker that she’s often predictably labelled with.
If you’re in possession of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS from last year then Final Cut’s edition may seem of little interest to you. Admittedly a double dip would be excessive, and that Roy Ward Baker / Ingrid Pitt / Tudor Gates commentary on Scream’s disc is hard to beat, but Final Cut have certainly put together a tempting package. There’s a new commentary here with respected genre authors Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby which offers a more scholarly analysis of the feature as opposed to the reminiscing nature of Scream’s edition. We also get a new 25 minute documentary entitled ‘New Blood: Hammer Enters the 70s’ which features a slew of well-informed talking heads and a peek inside an archive at De Montfort University in Leicester, England where Hammer have donated a wealth of material chronicling their history.

DELIRIUM REVIEW: 8/10

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