Hammer Films is world famous with horror fans – and justly so – for the line of gothic horror titles they released between the late 1950’s and the mid-1970’s. Conversely, their one-season Hammer House Of Horror show is a bit of a footnote with horror buffs, despite the presence of Hammer veteran Roy Skeggs in the producer’s chair and several Hammer directors, including Peter Sasdy and Alan Gibson, helming several of its episodes. It is a show worthy of rediscovery by fans of Hammer’s films – and the following article illustrates why with a breakdown of five particularly strong episodes that prove this show deserves a bigger cult following in the horror community.
Dead Reckoning: a real estate agent (Denholm Elliott) trapped in a marriage he wants out of finds himself caught in an interlocking series of nightmares where he keeps dying only to wake up in a new variation of the same bad dream. This one is played more for macabre humor than outright scares and works nicely thanks to a clever script and a subtle yet very funny performance from Elliott. Also of note is Lucy Gutteridge, known to U.S. viewers as Val Kilmer’s co-star in Top Secret!, as the agent’s secretary and, depending on the dream, his mistress. One of the clever conceits of the script has her changing appearance and personality in each dream and Gutteridge has a lot of fun playing the character’s ever-shifting persona.
The Silent Scream: this tends to be the fan favorite from the series and it’s easy to understand why – it’s got a great script, slick direction and two powerhouse performances from Peter Cushing and Brian Cox. Cushing plays a pet store owner who has taken a personal interest in a fresh-out-of-prison con played by Cox. The con is thinking of ripping off the old man but he’s underestimated his quarry, who has a number of interesting ideas about how behavior can be modified. The story throws out a novel twist every reel in this one, culminating in a genuinely surprising ending that hits like a punch to the gut. The direction by Hammer vet Alan Gibson keeps the surprises moving at a fast clip and it’s a thrill to see Cushing throw out all the stops in what might be the last really good role he had during the twilight of his career.
Guardian Of The Abyss: A sharpie working in the antiques market finds himself in hot water when he gets ahold of a “scrying glass,” a tool used by devil worshippers to communicate with dark forces. He also acquires a damsel in distress (Rosalyn Landor) whose future depends on who controls that glass – and both heroes are targeted by a secret, wealthy coven. This tale of deviltry and human sacrifices fondly recalls Hammer’s demonic-themed chiller The Devil Rides Out and it possesses a pulpy yet carefully detailed and plotted plot that Dennis Wheatley himself might have been amused by.
The Two Faces Of Evil: Another winner directed by Alan Gibson. The plot in this episode focuses on a beleaguered housewife and mother (Anna Calder-Marshall) whose life is turned upside down when her husband picks up a hitchhiker that attacks him and causes a car accident. They survive but her husband is acting strangely – and the corpse of the attacker looks just like her husband. Though that setup may seem to lead in an obvious direction, this episode is full of surprises and the cleverly structured plot will keep you off-kilter until the final scenes. Gibson plays up the surreal nature of the storyline with a stylized approach to the visuals and performances and Calder-Marshall’s lead performance keeps the viewer engaged in the ever-more-odd storyline.
The Mask Of Satan: the show’s final episode packs a really queasy punch, so much so that it was practically buried after its initial BBC screening date. The creepy storyline focuses on an aging mama’s boy (Peter McEnery) who works as a morgue assistant and is slowly being driven mad by a perceived conspiracy involving the number 9, the bible and cannibalism. Don Shaw’s script and Don Leaver’s direction force the viewer into the anti-hero’s paranoid mindset, ratcheting up the intensity as the episode progresses until everything seems surreal and subtly hostile. McEnery gives a suitably intense performance to anchor the episode and is backed up nicely by a carefully textured supporting performance by Georgina Hale as an upstairs neighbor with designs on the lead character.