Looking Back At HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s in his blanket-fort, quivering quietly.
Hammer films was first formed in 1934, and despite having a fairly wide range of films in its stable (including Thirties anti-slavery film The Song of Freedom, staring Paul Robeson), it really became a post-war legend in the world of horror movies.

Especially after 1955’s The Quatermass Experiment, Hammer found a niche it could master, in horror with a particularly British twist on Hollywood B-movie fare. Vampires, witches, werewolves, spectres, and monsters from literature, from religion, from folk horror and from science fiction were all grist to Hammer’s mill in the Sixties and Seventies.

Many legends were made or extended under Hammer’s banner, including the likes of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Anton Diffring, Janette Scott, and Oliver Reed. Hammer was, for much of its time, a thriving – indeed, a leading – part of the British film industry in an era when at least for domestic audiences, the British film industry could rival some of the Hollywood imports.

But by 1979, the house that had given the world an almost unfathomable number of variants on standard supernatural and monster stories was in trouble. In fact, it was in receivership, and in the cast-iron certainty of employing an already-tired image, it needed a shot of new blood to resurrect it from the grave.

Roy Skeggs and Brian Lawrence had both been board members at Hammer before it had gone into receivership. They’d left to form their own company, Cinema Arts, but were more or less begged to return when Hammer hit the buffers. Their mission was to find a new way forward for the more-than-ailing studio.

Their solution was to change filming locations and, much more crucially, to change the scale of Hammer’s productions and capture a slice of the TV audience.

That’s why the Hammer House of Horror TV series came to exist. It was an attempt to re-develop Hammer as a force on the small screen, as it had been for decades at the cinema.

And while the show only ran for one series of 13 episodes, it did a number of things superbly right.

First of all, meeting the needs of an episodic TV audience who could not in any sense be relied upon to follow a 13-episode single story arc, Hammer House of Horror went the anthology route, giving us 13 separate stories, so each one could be viewed as a kind of “mini-movie,” to be caught individually and turned into the British early Eighties equivalent of “watercooler talk.”

“Tea break talk,” if you will.

And then the series did something typically Hammer. It ran the gamut of supernatural horror, again including everything from witches to werewolves to possessions, to everyone’s perennial Hammer favourite, Satan himself. But usually in the TV series, the highly-strung notes of Hammer horror, were generally played dead straight and threaded through some contemporary Eighties British setting.

The series kicked off, for instance, with Witching Time, written by Anthony Read, who until 1979 had been a writer and Script Editor on Doctor Who. The story started with a potentially comical idea – in fact, with the potentially comical idea behind Richard Carpenter’s debut TV success, Catweazle. A magic-user from over 300 years ago, pursued by puritans, magics themselves into the 20th century. There are even initially similar scenes when the witch discovers the powers of electric light and modern plumbing.

But this is no comedy wizard. This is Patricia Quinn as serious witch Lucinda Jessup, and while she’s initially triumphant just to have escaped the people who were trying to burn and/or drown her, she soon sets her sights on the new owner of her old house – movie music composer, David Winter (Jon Finch).

Despite a powerful and never overplayed evil laugh, Jessup is played absolutely straight, and for a while it seems she might just be a figment of Winter’s neurotic, overstrung imagination and his (as it happens, justified) paranoia that his wife, Mary (Prunella Gee), is having an affair.

But the drama degenerates into a supernatural catfight, with Mary and Lucinda fighting for their man by voodoo doll, as the modern world and the medieval merge and play like flames over the surface of the Winters’ reality.

It’s gripping, powerful, played-straight stuff, and it launches the series with impressive performances, particularly from Quinn, who dominates from the word go.

And so we’re off to the creepy, screaming races. Secret societies working behind the scenes of health clubs (a relatively new and modern craze in 1980, and so absolutely ripe for suspicion). A horny estate agent hearing whispered suggestions from a house that he should kill his wife to get with his secretary. The business of adoption (already properly demonized in films like The Omen), when you’re not sure quite what you’ve taken in. Nazi concentration camp guards hiding out as benevolent pet shop owners with an intent to start up their ghastly human experiments again. Mysterious werewolf impregnation (no, really!). Antique dealers getting involved in cults of human sacrifice. And the call of Satan himself in a hospital mortuary, seen as insane ramblings by everyone except the potential disciple.

All of these featured in the 13-episode run, and they have that particular mixture of solidly mundane roots and extremely highly-strung horror that had marked out the best of the Hammer horror movies. Pet shops and Nazi experimentation! Health clubs of death! Antique shops of HUMAN SACRIFICE!

They were, essentially, peak Hammer, but in shorter, slightly more digestible forms that you didn’t need to leave the house to watch.

And, almost as crucially as running the gamut of traditional Hamer subjects and the combination of grounded backgrounds and highly-strung supernatural plots, the series drafted in some of the cream of British acting talent to anchor the stories.

That makes a colossal difference when you’re trying to merge the ordinary and the outre in a believable hour’s worth of nerve-jangling horror. Having Peter Cushing and Brian Cox in one episode gives you instant credibility for your story of pet shop Nazis (The Silent Scream). Having Patricia Quinn as your power-crazed, man-hungry 17th century witch means it stops being ridiculous and starts being terrifying in a big hurry (Witching Time).

Casting Denholm Elliott in your story of a pervy, potentially murderous estate agent is going to add impressive flesh to the bones of your script. Combining Diana Dors and Christopher Cazenove in your werewolf story immediately gives you a sensuality that’s ready to unnerve you the moment it spills over.

Bringing (get this) Suzanne Danielle, Sian Phillips (famous for many things, including her barnstorming Livia in I, Claudius), Anthony Valentine (famous as Raffles, the Gentleman Thief), Jeffrey Wickham, W. Morgan Shepherd, and a young Pierce Brosnan together in a single story means your reincarnated murderess story (Carpathian Eagle) is going to fly off the screen and scare the willies out of your audience.

And so on, and so on.

Even the main stars were able backed up by serious character actors, including the likes of Paul Darrow, Brian Croucher, Gareth Thomas, Simon MacCorkindale, Philip Latham, Dinah Sheridan, Ian McCulloch, Emrys James and Georgina Hale, so pretty much all the way down the cast sheet of most episodes, you’ll find people you know from something else, delivering naturalism in which to anchor the screaming supernature of the Hammer plots.

If you want to see Hammer at arguably its finest (by virtue of the slightly shorter form and solid anchoring of the supernatural elements in the contemporary world), you can’t really do better than to check out the Hammer House of Horror series, which is now available on Britbox (as well as on some other platforms).

We’ve deliberately avoided delving into one particular episode, because for people who saw the series go out in 1980, if you say “Hammer House of Horror,” at least 90% of them will reply with “Arrrgh! The House That Bled To Death!”

And they’re right to do so. The fifth episode of the series is the kind of story that, even if the rest somehow fade from your memory, you’ll remember in sweaty, screamy moments at 4am.

Written by David Lloyd, The House That Bled To Death is for the most part a story of a standard family – William and Emma (Nicholas Ball and Rachel Davies respectively), and their daughter Sophia (Emma Ridley) – moving in to a house in need of love and restoration in an ordinary street.

Befriended by neighbours George and Jean (Brian Croucher and Pat Maynard), everything goes well until Sophia’s beloved pet cat appears to cut its own throat on a broken shard of window glass.

And then there are the miraculously appearing machetes.

Machetes that, it turns out, were used in a brutal murder in the house by the previous owner.

Cue a screamfest full of jump-scares, as both Sophia and Jean experience increasingly creepy goings-on in the house, topped by a birthday party in which water pipes burst and spray the assembled guests with… well, you can probably guess, given the title of the episode.

None of which, peculiarly enough, is what tends to make it stick in the mind – though the birthday party is a doozy, right enough. There are two more ultimate shocks before the end, and you’re mad if you think we’re about to spoil them for you. Suffice it to say, they’re shocks that make The House That Bled To Death stand out in the memory, even after four decades.

Stellar performances from practically everyone in the episode, including Milton Johns as a creepy estate agent, mean it really anchors you in its drama, so when the Hammer elements develop, they punch above their nominal weight. And when the final surprises come, they leave you with a “Wait – WHAT the hell just happened?” shock that goes down the decades and can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

It’s probably wrong to elevate one episode above the rest, because every story in the Hammer House of Horror series punches hard, works well, and leaves you shaken. But if you want to dive in at the deep end, give The House That Bled To Death your attention first, then go back and watch the rest of the series to understand where it sits in the overall project of taking Hammer from the big screen right into the homes of Eighties horror-fans.

Watch Hammer House of Horror today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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