Hammer Horror: Four Gothic Horror Films (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Sep 08, 2021
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Hammer Horror: Four Gothic Horror Films (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Various

Release Date(s)

Various (July 21, 2021)

Studio(s)

Hammer Films (Imprint/Via Vision)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A+

Review

[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray release.]

Over the course of Hammer Films’ history, they produced an array of differing horror films in order to satisfy an evolving audience looking for more and more bloodshed and titillation. Part of this was due to the relaxation of censors and film ratings boards in both the UK and the US, which meant that an increasing amount of sex, nudity, and gore was making its way into cinemas, albeit under critical scrutiny. By the 1970s, bolder attempts were made at shaking things by developing less straight Gothic horror and more of a blend of genre milieus. Culling together four of these films into one set, Imprint’s Hammer Horror: Four Gothic Horror Films offers an interesting selection of material with pleasant presentations, robust extras, and quality packaging. All released in 1971 in the UK, many critics and fans consider these films to be among Hammer’s last quality pieces of work before eventually dying out at the end of the decade.

In Countess Dracula (released on a double bill with Vampire Circus), 17th century Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy (Ingrid Pitt) discovers that by bathing in the blood of young virgin girls she can revitalize her appearance—turning her from an old crone into a beautiful young woman. Attempting to hide her transformation, she sends her daughter into the woods to be held captive while she poses as her, but as the bodies pile up and the Countess’ sanity begins to collapse, suspicion about her private bloodletting activities draws closer and closer.

Countess Dracula is an uneven film, but is ultimately driven by a terrific leading performance by Ingrid Pitt. The film borrows heavily from the exaggerated (and now considered mostly unsubstantiated) tales of serial murderer Countess Elizabeth Bathory in telling its story of a woman obsessed with her own youth and beauty, but with its own particular spin. Along with The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula essentially turned Ingrid Pitt into one of Hammer’s most beloved stars.

Hands of the Ripper is a proto-slasher film in which the young Anna witnesses the murder of her mother at the hands of Jack the Ripper, her father. Now a grown woman, Anna (Angharad Reese) deals with this personal turmoil and possible schizophrenia, brought on by the knowledge of her father’s actions, believing that her father’s spirit inhabits her body and comes forward to continue his infamous killing spree. Taking pity on her and wanting to cure her is a concerned psychiatrist (Eric Porter), but even he is unable to stop her from randomly murdering those around her.

One of Hammer’s more grisly films from this period, Hands of the Ripper is also another attempt at breaking with the formula of remaking and sequelizing various Universal horror properties. It too suffers from pacing issues, but is an effective and even harrowing experience at times thanks to a fine leading performance, great cinematography, and shocking amounts of spilled crimson.

Twins of Evil (released on a double bill with Hands of the Ripper), tells of two young and beautiful twin sisters, Maria and Frieda (Mary Collinson and Madeleine Collinson), who are recently orphaned and have come to live with their uncle and attend a school for young girls. Their uncle, Gustav (Peter Cushing), is a puritanical Christian who roams the countryside with his brotherhood of followers stamping out so-called “witchcraft” wherever he finds it. Nearby, Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) is attempting to lure Maria and Frieda away from their uncle and turn them into vampires, but he must eventually confront Gustav in a battle to the death.

Though 20-year-old Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collison were chosen mostly for their beauty and their bodies, they actually turn in solid performances in what is a surprisingly strong effort by Hammer during this late run of films. Peter Cushing is excellent as always, but the enticement of the Collinson twins and their vampiric activities allow Twins of Evil to shine brightest among the films presented here. The third film in The Karnstein Trilogy (preceded by The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire), it’s also one of the sexiest and most compelling.

The final film of this boxed set, Vampire Circus truly goes off the beaten path. The evil Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) is defeated by the local villagers, cursing them and vowing to return one day. Years later, a traveling circus comes to the village, entrancing many of its patrons, especially its young children. Talented performers though they are, this circus turns out to be made up of a band of vampires who are the loyal disciples of Count Mitterhaus. Once the villagers and their children begin disappearing, it becomes clear that this circus is more than it seems and that the performers are attempting to resurrect the long dead Count Mitterhaus.

With a story that’s needlessly complicated at times with far too many characters and plot threads, Vampire Circus certainly swings for the fences in terms of doing something radically different. It never really works and suffers from pacing issues, but it’s an interesting film in its own right, complete with an essentially naked woman dancing erotically in heavy animal make-up.

The video and audio presentations of these films have all been apparently sourced from the same masters used for the individual Synapse Films Blu-ray releases, though there are sometimes obvious differences.

For Countess Dracula, scratches and speckling are evident, but the presentation offers heavy grain. Detail is a tad soft, which is no fault of the masters as it appears true to its source with no aggressive digital noise removal. The color palette showcases a variety of hues, including the many colors found within the Countess’ chambers, throughout her castle, and within the surrounding wood. Blacks are also adequate with good shadow detail and contrast. Upon close inspection, this presentation is identical to the one found on Synapse’s Blu-ray release.

For Hands of the Ripper, it appears that a similar master was used, although there a couple of key differences. It’s a much brighter presentation with a slightly wider aspect ratio. In fact, it’s too bright, lighting up blacks and shadows with a much lower contrast. The color palette is mostly the same, although sporadic shots appear warmer. Grain and detail levels are also similar. As such, it’s a lesser presentation than the Synapse Blu-ray, but only marginally so. While both come from the same master, one has had its color temperature paid closer attention to than the other.

For Twins of Evil, the differences are not as obvious. The Synapse presentation is cooler with pinker flesh tones and, once again, a slightly more narrow aspect ratio. The Imprint presentation is not as bright, though only by several degrees. Which is the more favorable is difficult to say as being darker benefits certain shots, yet slightly hampers others. The same level of detail and grain are on display, the latter much more moderate and even than the previous two presentations. It’s also the cleanest presentation thus far. As far as which is superior, it’s a toss up, though I tend to prefer Synapse’s cooler color palette overall.

For Vampire Circus, the main obvious difference is in how bright the Imprint presentation is over the Synapse presentation, but it’s actually an improvement. The Synapse disc is so dark that there’s crush in the shadows. The Imprint disc corrects this, but may also be a tad too bright. It also features the same aspect ratio, color palette, and grain structure. It’s clean with only minor speckling, and healthy levels of fine detail. Overall, the Imprint presentation is the better of the two.

All four films feature audio in English 2.0 Mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. All four tracks are similar in terms of quality. Dialogue exchanges tend to be right at the forefront, with the muscular scores filling out the tracks with the most intensity. Sound effects range from clean and crisp to dated and soft. None of the elements really drown each other out and are mixed appropriately. A mild hiss is present at times, as is a tiny bit of crackle, but all of the tracks are otherwise clean and satisfactory.

COUNTESS DRACULA (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B+/B
HANDS OF THE RIPPER (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B-/B
TWINS OF EVIL (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/B/B
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B/B

This set included five discs total, including a bonus disc. Fans of Synapse Films’ Blu-ray releases of these films should take note that while all of the extras on those individual releases have been carted over, a substantial amount of extra material has been added. The following is included on each disc:

DISC ONE: COUNTESS DRACULA

  • Audio Commentary with Ingrid Pitt, Kim Newman, and Stephen Jones
  • Audio Commentary with Ingrid Pitt, Peter Sasdy, Jeremy Paul, Jonathan Sothcott
  • Audio Commentary with Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • Vampire Lover: The Life and Career of Ingrid Pitt (HD – 23:34)
  • Blood Countess: Bathory on Film (HD – 27:00)
  • Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt (HD – 10:47)
  • Archival Video Interview with Ingrid Pitt (HD – 6:50)
  • Archival Audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt (HD – 8:30)
  • Interview with Leon Lissek (HD – 2:50)
  • Interview with Peter Sasdy (HD – 21:12)
  • Interview with Gabriel Ronay (HD – 12:27)
  • Stills Gallery (HD – 82 in all – 7:10)
  • Trailer (Upscaled HD – 3:06)
  • Double Feature Trailer with Vampire Circus (HD – 2:20)

The first audio commentary from 2006 features Ingrid Pitt and film historians Kim Newman and Steven Jones. The second is from 2003 and features Ingrid Pitt again with director Peter Sasdy, and Jeremy Paul, moderated by Hammer historian Jonathan Sothcott. New to the set is an audio commentary with Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons. Also new is Vampire Lover, a career-spanning retrospective on Ingrid Pitt by Kat Ellinger, delving into her younger days and the horrors she faced in Nazi concentration camps, working as a single parent, her work in genre films, her writing career, and most importantly, her appeal as a sex symbol and a strong female presence within the film industry. In Blood Countess, Kat Ellinger returns to talk about the myth of Elizabeth Bathory and various filmmakers’ uses of it. Immortal Countess delves further into the career of Ingrid Pitt, featuring genre experts Ted Newsom, Robert Cotter, Richard Klemensen, and actor and writer Mark Redfield. In Pitt’s archival video interview from 1999, she makes an appearance on the British TV program Tonight to promote her new book. The audio interview is of poor quality and requires a volume adjustment to hear it properly, but in it, Pitt discusses her background and her career. Actor Leon Lissek speaks very briefly about his experiences making the film. Director Peter Sasdy discusses how he got involved with Hammer, what Hammer expected of him, how he got involved with Countess Dracula, how the film got green-lit, and casting Ingrid Pitt and having to overdub her. Writer Gabriel Ronay talks about how he made it out of Vienna, researching and writing about Elizabeth Bathory and her connections to Dracula, seeing the film in progress, and his feelings about it. The stills gallery features 82 stills of behind-the-scenes photos, promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards. Rounding things out are the film’s trailer and double feature trailer, paired with Vampire Circus.

DISC TWO: HANDS OF THE RIPPER

  • Audio Commentary with Angharad Rees, Kim Newman, and Stephen Jones
  • Audio Commentary with Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • Isolated Music & Effects Track
  • The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by the Hands of the Ripper (HD – 28:22)
  • Fresh Blood (HD – 23:41)
  • US Television Introduction (HD – 7:07)
  • UK Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:06)
  • US Trailer (HD – 1:57)
  • TV Spots (HD – 3 in all – :59)
  • Slaughter of Innocence: The Evolution of Hammer Gore Stills Gallery (HD – 59 in all – 6:08)
  • Stills Gallery (HD – 83 in all – 5:43)

The first audio commentary features actress Angharad Rees and film historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. New to this set is a second audio commentary with Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons. There’s also an isolated score and effects audio track presented in 2.0 LPCM. The Devil’s Bloody Plaything features interviews with Hammer historians Richard Klemensen, Wayne Kinsey, filmmaker Joe Dante, film historians Kim Newman, Tim Lucas, director Peter Sasdy, actresses Jane Merrow, and Angharad Rees. Fresh Blood interviews Peter Sasdy once again, discussing many of the same subjects as his previous interview, but also delving into his experiences making Hands of the Ripper. The US Television Introduction is audio-only as the video tape master is believed to have been destroyed. Rounding things out are the film’s US and UK trailers, a set of 3 TV spots, and two still galleries: one showing the progression of gore Hammer’s films in 59 stills, and the other featuring 83 behind-the-scenes photos, promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards from Hands of the Ripper.

DISC THREE: TWINS OF EVIL

  • Audio Commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
  • Audio Commentary with Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • Isolated Music & Effects Track
  • The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil Director’s Cut (HD – 89:12)
  • Satanic Decadence & the Legacy of Sheridan Le Fanu in Hammer’s Twins of Evil (HD – 20:34)
  • The Props That Hammer Built: The Kinsey Collection (HD – 23:39)
  • Interview with John Hough (HD – 21:45)
  • Interview with Damien Thomas (Upscaled HD – 49:12)
  • Super-8 Version of the Film (HD – 9:41)
  • Deleted Scene (Upscaled SD – 1:09)
  • Trailer (HD – 2:31)
  • Double Feature Trailer with Hands of the Ripper (HD – 2:40)
  • TV Spots (HD – 3 in all – 1:02)
  • Stills Gallery (HD – 130 in all – 14:01)

New to this set is an audio commentary with film historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. The second audio commentary features Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons. There’s also an isolated score and effects audio track presented in 2.0 LPCM. The Flesh and the Fury is a feature-length documentary about the making of Twins of Evil. It features Hammer historian Wayne Kinsey, filmmaker Joe Dante, film historians Kim Newman, Tim Lucas, Ted Newsom, David J. Skal, Sir Christopher Frayling, John-Paul Checkett, former Hammer Films executive Sir James Carreras, actress Jane Merrow, director John Hough, actor Damien Thomas, and producer Michael Style. This version is actually a few minutes longer than the version available on the Synapse Films Blu-ray release. Satanic Decadence is a new visual essay by Kat Ellinger who examines the original Carmilla novel and its various adaptations. In The Props That Hammer Built, Hammer film historian and collector Wayne Kinsey returns to show off his collection of props from various Hammer films, including miniatures, costumes, and concept paintings. In the interview with director John Hough, he talks about his filmmaking inspirations, how he got his start, getting involved with Hammer, almost directing two James Bond films with David Warbeck as Bond, working with Peter Cushing and the twins, the special effects, his feelings on censorship, Hammer’s downfall and rebirth, and almost making a Vampirella film in 1976. The interview with actor Damien Thomas was conducted on stage by Wayne Kinsey in 2008 at the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester. The Super-8 digest version of the film runs just shy of 10 minutes. The brief deleted scene features a song sung by two of David Warbeck’s character’s students in the film. Rounding things out are the film’s trailer and double feature trailer, paired with Hands of the Ripper, a set of 3 TV spots, and a still gallery featuring 130 behind-the-scenes photos, promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards.

DISC FOUR: VAMPIRE CIRCUS

  • Audio Commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
  • Audio Commentary with Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • Isolated Music & Effects Track
  • The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus (HD – 32:39)
  • Gallery of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horrors (HD – 15:17)
  • Revisiting the House of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine (HD – 9:47)
  • Behind the Mirror: The Secret History of Vampire Circus (HD – 23:14)
  • Blood and Circuses (HD – 40:20)
  • Vampire Victim (HD – 4:15)
  • Cutting Hammer Horror (HD – 9:08)
  • Stills and Poster Gallery (HD – 20 in all – 1:58)
  • Vampire Circus: Motion Comic Adaptation (HD – 4 pages – 3:15)
  • Trailer (HD – 2:29)

New to this set is an audio commentary with film historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. The second audio commentary features Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons. There’s also an isolated score and effects audio track presented in 2.0 LPCM. The Bloodiest Show on Earth features interviews with film historians Ted Newsom, Tim Lucas, Philip Putnam, filmmaker Joe Dante, and actor David Prowse. Gallery of Grotesqueries goes over the history of horror films set at circuses while Revisiting the House of Hammer discusses the House of Hammer magazine. Both are narrated by Randal Turnbull and feature Philip Putnam talking about both subjects. Behind the Mirror goes over some of the less-discussed aspects of the film, featuring narration by Anju Dutta and interviews with Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby, Kevin Lyons, Hammer script reader Nadja Regin, author Alan Barnes, and cultural historian John J. Johnson. Blood and Circuses features an interview with director Robert Young who discusses his involvement with the project at length. In Vampire Victim, actress Sibylla Kay briefly talks about her experiences making the film. In Cutting Hammer Horror, editor Peter Musgrave talks about his approach to and experience of putting the film together. Rounding things out is a still gallery featuring 20 behind-the-scenes photos, promotional photos, and posters; a 4-page motion comic adaptation; and the film’s trailer.

DISC FIVE: FLESH & BLOOD: THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR

  • Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror (Upscaled HD – 146:34)

The final disc, tucked away inside next to Vampire Circus, is Ted Newsom’s massive Hammer documentary Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror. Only ever available on DVD in lower quality, it’s included here in HD for the first time in its extended director’s cut form (the US DVD release is nearly an hour shorter). It covers the history of the company in vast detail and is narrated by the late Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both men taking turns narrating. Participants include Roy Ward Baker, James Bernard, Martine Beswick, Veronica Carlson, John Carpenter, Michael Carreras, Hazel Court, Joe Dante, Freddie Francis, Val Guest, Ray Harryhaus, Anthony Hinds, Terry Ilott, Andrew Keir, Richard Matheson, Francis Matthews, Ferdy Mayne, Ian McGregor-Scott, Caroline Munro, Christopher Neame, Ingrid Pitt, David Prowse, Jimmy Sangster, Martin Scorsese, Don Sharp, Yutte Stensgaard, Raquel Welch, and Aida Young. No extras are included with it, but none are needed. It’s a must watch, and definitely sweetens the pot for an already excellent Blu-ray boxset.

Each disc is included in its own clear amaray case with double-sided artwork (one of each films’ posters on the front and a still from each film on the reverse). As previously mentioned, the disc featuring the Flesh & Blood documentary is included inside the case containing the disc for Vampire Circus. All of the cases are housed within sturdy slipcase packaging in which the top pops off. It’s a very handsome and well put together package.

Imprint’s handling of these films is highly commendable. This is a beautiful boxed set that treats each film well. Some of the presentations could be slightly better, but for the value you get with an amazing amount of bonus materials and terrific packaging, it’s a lovely release overall. For Hammer fans looking to devour everything, this set is very much recommended.

- Tim Salmons

(You can follow Tim on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook. And be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel here.)

 

Tags

1971, 1972, 1973, 20th Century Fox, Adrienne Corri, Aida Young, Alan Barnes, Alex Greenland, Alex Scott, Alexander Paal, Andrew Keir, Andria Lawrence, Angharad Rees, Anju Dutta, Anne Stallybrass, Anthony Corlan, Anthony Higgins, Anthony Hinds, April Wilding, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, Barnaby Shaw, Barry Lowe, Blood Countess, Blu-ray, Blu-ray Disc, box set, boxed set, boxset, British, Carmilla, Caroline Munro, Charles Farrell, Chris Barnes, Christina Paul, Christopher Frayling, Christopher Gunning, Christopher Lee, Christopher Neame, Countess Dracula, Damien Thomas, Daniel Griffith, David de Keyser, David J Skal, David Prowse, David Warbeck, David Whitaker, Dennis Price, Derek Godfrey, Dick Bush, Domini Blythe, Don Sharp, Dora Bryan, Dorothy Frere, Edward Spencer Shew, Elizabeth Bathory, Elizabeth MacLennan, Elizabeth Seal, Eric Porter, Ferdy Mayne, Flesh and Blood, Flesh and Blood The Hammer Heritage of Horror, Francis Matthews, Freddie Francis, George Baxt, Gothic horror, Hammer, Hammer Film Productions, Hammer Films, Hammer Horror, Hammer Horror Four Gothic Horror Films, Hammer Productions, Hands of the Ripper, Harry Fine, Harry Robertson, Harvey Hall, Hazel Court, Henry Richardson, horror, Ian McGregor-Scott, Ian Trigger, Imprint, Ingrid Pitt, Inigo Jackson, Isobel Black, Jack the Ripper, James Bernard, James Carreras, Jane Darby, Jane Merrow, Jeremy Paul, Jessie Evans, Jimmy Sangster, John Bown, John Carpenter, John Hough, John J Johnson, John Moulder-Brown, John-Paul Checkett, Jonathan Rigby, Jonathan Sothcott, Judson Kinberg, Judy Matheson, Karnstein Trilogy, Kat Ellinger, Kathleen Byron, Katya Wyeth, Keith Bell, Kenneth Talbot, Kevin Lyons, Kim Newman, Kirsten Lindholm, Lalla Ward, Laurence Payne, Leon Lissek, Lesley-Anne Down, Luan Peters, LW Davidson, Lynda Baron, Lynne Frederick, Madeleine Collinson, Marcus Hearn, Margaret Rawlings, Marianne Stone, Marjie Lawrence, Marjorie Rhodes, Mark Redfield, Martin Scorsese, Martine Beswick, Mary Collinson, Mary Wimbush, Maurice Denham, Michael Cadman, Michael Carreras, Michael Style, Milovan Vesnitch, Nadja Regin, Nigel Green, Nike Arrighi, Olive Gregg, Patience Collier, Peter Cushing, Peter Jeffrey, Peter Musgrave, Peter Sasdy, Peter Thompson, Randal Turnbull, Rank Film Distributors, Raquel Welch, Ray Harryhausen, review, Richard Klemensen, Richard Matheson, Richard Owens, Robert Cotter, Robert Tayman, Robert Young, Robin Hunter, Robin Sachs, Roderick Shaw, Roy Stewart, Roy Ward Baker, Sandor Eles, Sean Hewitt, Serena, Shelagh Wilcox, Sheridan Le Fanu, Sibylla Kay, Sir Anthony Hinds, Skip Martin, Spencer Reeve, Stephen Jones, Susan Brodrick, Ted Newsom, Terry Ilott, The Digital Bits, The Karnstein Trilogy, Thorley Walters, Tim Salmons, Tudor Gates, Twins of Dracula, Twins of Evil, Universal Pictures, Val Guest, vampire, Vampire Circus, vampires, Veronica Carlson, Via Vision, Wilbur Stark, Yutte Stensgaard

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