By the end of the 1970’s, the once-legendary Hammer Films was at its lowest ebb. They hadn’t produced a horror film since 1976’s To The Devil A Daughter and had been all but bankrupted after producing a remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979. They shifted their efforts towards the small screen and the first of these efforts was Hammer House Of Horror, a horror anthology series that ran for 13 episodes on U.K. television in the fall of 1980. The results showed that the old vamp of the British film business still had a few sinister tricks up its sleeve.
Unlike a lot of horror anthology shows, Hammer House Of Horror didn’t bother with a host or a framing device: the closest it got to such elements is a spooky title sequence depicting a house that could fit the title at night, shrouded in fog. The stories it presented covered a wide range of horror topics: there were some staple elements like werewolves (“Children Of The Full Moon”), voodoo dolls (“Charlie Boy”) and devil worship (“Guardian Of The Abyss”).
However other episodes took on more ambitious and unusual territory: “Rude Awakening” cleverly uses a series of interlocking nightmares that bleed into each other for macabre comic purposes and “The Two Faces Of Evil” is an intense, surreal affair that explores the concept of doppelgangers via a fragmented narrative that is guaranteed to creep out viewers with an effective use of nightmare logic in its storytelling.
One of the most fascinating things about Hammer House Of Horror is that it represents a turning point in television’s approach to the horror anthology. On the classic side of things, it distills a lot of classic elements that made Hammer films so appealing to horror fans: good production values, strong acting and an accent on quality craftsmanship in both writing and direction. Hammer fans will also be happy to note that the directors on this series include a lot of the “young turks” who livened up the studio’s latter-day output like Peter Sasdy (Countess Dracula), Alan Gibson (Crescendo) and Robert Young (Vampire Circus).
However, it also interesting to note that certain elements of Hammer House Of Horror anticipate the approach of some of the 1980s. For one thing, these stories are decidedly aimed at adults, periodically including a spot of gore or nudity. Future shows like The Hitchhiker and Tales From The Crypt would take a similarly adult-oriented angle. Similarly, Hammer House Of Horror also favors a doomy, downbeat “no happy endings” style of horror that 1980’s horror anthologies would embrace. Simply put, don’t expect any Rod Serling-styled humanism here.
As with any anthology show, some episodes are stronger than others in Hammer House Of Horror. The first few episodes, “The Witching Time” and “The Thirteenth Reunion,” are a little uncertain in their pacing, perhaps because they were trying to figure out how to devise stories that could fill a full hour rather than the usual 30-minute anthology show shot.
However, the show starts to hit its stride with the third episode, “Dead Reckoning,” and stays pretty consistent through the end. Though some of the plotlines are built on archetypal familiarity, they usually flesh out their traditional shocks with some interesting trappings or ideas: for example, “Charlie Boy” sets its tale of voodoo against an unexpected advertising business milieu and “Children Of The Full Moon” offers a clever take on how werewolves keep their ranks filled out in a human-driven world.
Fans of character actors are also likely to get a thrill from the actors new and old who pop up on the show. For example, “Witching Time” has Patricia Quinn — Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show — popping up as a malevolently sexy (and sometimes naked) sorceress, Denholm Elliott serves up a strong, subtly textured comedic turn in “Dead Reckoning” and Diana Dors steals a few scenes as a cheerful yet creepy rural hausfrau in “Children Of The Full Moon.”
“Silent Scream” is probably the winner for best performances in this set as it offers a stellar turn from Peter Cushing as a pet shop owner who harbors some grim theories about behavior modification and a young, pre–Manhunter Brian Cox as a nervous ex-con whose criminal mindset gets him into trouble. This was one of the last great roles for Cushing and he gives a committed, skillfully textured performance that will make any Hammer fan smile.
In short, Hammer House Of Horror offers up enough old-school craftsmanship to please fans of classic horror but it does with it enough bite to give it an adult-level charge. Whether you prefer the newer or older style of horror anthology, there’s something here to please all sorts of horror fans.