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.