Following the gradual decline of Hammer’s film output during the seventies it was time to devote their attentions to something less expensive but lucrative enough to permit them to maintain business: television. The potential of the medium had clearly already been recognised by the company because Hammer themselves had previously adapted one or two popular series for the big screen in the shape of, for example, On The Buses. While most of Hammer’s more macabre cinematic outings were essentially gothic period pieces, the television work of the eighties took a much more contemporary stance by rooting scenarios in modern times, this probably being a smart move because it enabled a wider audience the chance to identify with the characters and material despite the fantastical but horrific nature of many of the situations. Spanning across (appropriately enough) only thirteen episodes there is a variable quality at times (as with any television series) but the overall impression of Hammer House of Horror is surprisingly upmarket, this aided by the fact that it was shot on film rather than video. Aside from a generally average to good standard of acting these episodes don’t feel as cheap as one might expect, exhibiting the consistently well crafted work of skilled technicians in their field, plus the location work was really nice and will make older (30+) UK viewers feel at home with realistic depictions of a picturesque span of English backdrops from the era. A couple of years later they produced another series called Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense but these were padded to feature length in order to meet the US broadcast criteria dictated by a movie of the week slot. The later series suffered as a result but HHOH itself was kept to a sensible fifty minutes per episode, thus giving the stories enough space to breathe without too much risk of boring the viewer. The opening/closing music score was a suitably melancholic and dark piece, reminding me of the score that came soon after for Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery. The stories themselves revolved around concepts of fear and the macabre, it goes without saying, but what may be less expected is that sometimes the feeling of unease projected from a story actually worked and there are a number of moments throughout the run that can still induce a chill through the body. It is, therefore, a sporadically successful piece of work in my opinion. Don’t look for something to cheer you up too much either - whereas the studio’s movie output tended to find good triumphing over evil, conversely there were rarely happy endings in Hammer’s TV House of Horror.
Carlton blessed us with a 4 disc set containing the entire series of HHOH, an average of three episodes per disc and, though not sequenced in their original broadcast order this is no great problem considering the unrelated nature of the stories. They’re presented in their original academy aspect ratios with DD2.0 audio, and each looks very sharp, detailed and naturally coloured. Extras are minimal but the set is the best way to view and own this sometimes overlooked series. During the following synopses and opinions I’ve attempted to refrain from using spoilers.
The House That Bled To Death; Directed by Tom Clegg; UK Transmission 11th October 1980
A couple of new homeowners and child move into a house that was previously the place where a husband poisoned his wife before cutting up the body and burying her under the patio (and just about anywhere else he could find a place to dig a hole). Their arrival is followed by bouts of unexplained activity: the wife is nearly gassed, blood pours from various structural orifices, knives disappear and reappear, etc. While there are illogical details that only really materialise upon the film’s denouement, there is a sense of unease that develops as tale progresses, a constant feeling that something frightening is about to happen. Regardless of the final act the film works quite well, at least partly because we’re not aware if there are actual ghosts in the house, if the house itself is possessed, or the occupants are mad - it remains unexplained for the large part and this is an aid to the dread that is conjured up.
Silent Scream; Directed by Alan Gibson; UK Transmission 25th October 1980
A frail pet shop owner (Peter Cushing) is conducting experiments in captivity without the use of prison bars, i.e. training individuals to voluntarily stay within a confined area essentially through the use of electric shocks as a means of shaping behaviour. He uses animals to hone his techniques, basically exercises in classical conditioning, until an old inmate acquaintance attempts to steal something from him. The man himself triggers a trap which contains him in an underground room against his will, this providing the slightly unhinged wannabe-scientist a chance to practise his ideas with humans. Luckily the man’s girlfriend notices that he’s missing and heads off to find out what’s happened to him, neither of the couple realising that the old man is smarter than they think. Tapping into ideas relating to academic psychology provides an interesting slant and Cushing himself creates a cold and nasty sort of character, these factors working in the episode’s favour. Brian Cox does quite a nice job as the inmate who becomes imprisoned once again; hard to believe just a few years later he would be playing Hannibal Lecktor (as spelt in the film he appeared in). It’s an otherwise average story that merely passes the time.
The Two Faces of Evil; Directed by Alan Gibson; UK Transmission 29th November 1980
Out on a family road trip in the countryside, Janet thinks she sees a man in a raincoat standing in the bushes as they navigate a junction. Later on a storm has kicked off and they see a hitchhiker ahead - someone in a raincoat. Not entirely convinced they should be picking him up, the husband stops anyway. Minutes later the hooded man attacks the husband, sending the car off the road and causing it to crash. Janet wakes up in hospital, she and her son okay but the husband quite severely injured. None of the staff seem to be particularly concerned that he was attacked, looking at the woman as if she’s insane while she tries to explain. Then the police locate a corpse - the suspect in the attack incident - near the crash site, but he looks remarkably like Janet’s husband. Anxious to get back to normal she eventually takes her son and the injured man home to recover, but all is not necessarily as it seems and normality is something that may be further than she’d like. Opening with an incredibly atmospheric situation the scenario is set up quite beautifully as we’re drawn into what is clearly a frightening world. The transition from sunny roads to storm-driven landscape is well handled and the intended feel of the piece is identifiable. What follows is an escalating series of frightening occurrences that remind me of a particular film (what it is I won’t name in order to prevent giving anything away about the concluding act) but, despite one small gripe with an inconsistency becoming evident at the end, still manages to stand on its own feet as an extremely sinister and chilling little tale.
The Mark of Satan; Directed by Don Leaver; UK Transmission 6th December 1980
A man undergoing brain surgery at an undisclosed hospital, the use of a mere local anaesthetic appearing to be in effect. Before dying he starts screaming, begging the surgeons (or whoever he believes is listening) not to touch his soul. Later on, a trainee mortuary attendant begins to get nervous when he realises the number 9 is popping up in his life with alarming regularity (his sweepstake winnings are nine pounds - hey, this was the eighties! He’s told to put a corpse into cabin number nine, etc.) and from there on his paranoia increases to a point where he’s becoming incoherent and homicidal, thinking that Satan himself is attempting to contact him. Are the people around him out to perform some sort of sacrifice or is it all happening within his mind? While the trainee is initially someone who many of us may be able to identify with, being a seemingly nice person struggling to cope with a new vocational situation, he gradually proves to be so psychotic it almost becomes too difficult to sympathise with him. Of course that’s partly the point as we’re never supposed to be sure whether the paranoia is simply that, or well-founded acknowledgement of a genuine threat. The characters are a little better played here than what was conventional for the series and, as may be viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, they do come across as quite sinister (Georgina Hale plays one of the creepiest single mothers you‘re ever likely to meet, plus Emrys James is gloriously theatrical in the role of Dr Harris). Hints at Rosemary’s Baby aside I did find it a little difficult to truly enjoy this slightly chaotic episode but the representation of confusion and fear is commendable.
Witching Time; Directed by Don Leaver; UK Transmission 13th September 1980
A film music composer in the throes of domestic problems encounters a woman in the barn outside one stormy night. She claims to be a witch who has just travelled through time from a point several hundred years earlier when she was about to be burnt at the stake. After mating with her she soon begins to take a supernatural control over his life, and his situation is not helped when she seems to disappear every time someone else is around - soon his sanity comes under question with those who he tells, but things start to turn really nasty as attempts are made to end his estranged wife’s life. Quite a sexy entry in the series featuring a gripping climax. Jon Finch (Frenzy) brings his usual emotionally charged performance to the proceedings though the character’s fashion statements are a little out of date now. Overall, an average episode with elements to push it upwards in the quality stakes by a couple of notches.
Visitor From The Grave; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 22nd November 1980
A neurotic American woman blows the face off an intruder as he attempts to rape her. Returning home her English husband is somewhat disturbed to find blood all over the place and his wife curled up on the bed in shock. But rather than call the police the husband convinces her that there could be legal problems considering they don’t have a licence for the gun, plus he thinks his wife would be put into an institution for her actions: they cover up the crime and he buries the body in the woods. She then begins catching glimpses of the ghost of the man she killed and seeks help from a medium who tells her that the ghost has returned for revenge. Among attractive location shooting, plus the use of a cool Jaguar XJS, the formula here is unfortunately too predictable to be enjoyable, featuring a revelation that anyone who has seen more than a handful of chillers will spot a mile off. Further to that the concluding scene is feeble to say the least, and brought to a strangely abrupt halt as if the editor suddenly realised he’d reached his fifty minute episode quotient.
Rude Awakening; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 27th September 1980
This story repeatedly follows the activities of an estate agent who seems perpetually doomed to waking up and living each day only to find that the day was in fact a dream. Each morning he wakes up next to a wife with whom he has an unsatisfactory relationship, heads off to work where he flirts with his sexually charged secretary, has a call to visit a property that turns out to be disastrous or non-existent, and is accused at some point of killing the very wife that he woke up next to earlier on. This is a really interesting premise, taking on a Twilight Zone type of narrative and utilising the charismatic talents of Denholm Elliot in the lead role. Early on the viewer suspects (once they realise he’s reliving a dream with various threads of consistency) that the tale will become boring, but it actually becomes progressively more intriguing as we attempt to piece together a very Lynchian puzzle. Lucy Gutteridge’s secretary mysteriously takes on different personas in each dream while Elliot’s character simply can’t understand why his memory continues to process information normally while all around him are oblivious to his plight, passing through stages of confusion right to a point where he simply accepts/believes that what he’s experiencing is only part of a dream. This kind of confrontation with the nature of one’s perception of reality fascinates me, while the story itself must surely have been an inspiration behind the Danny Rubin story that became Groundhog Day.
Charlie Boy; Directed by Robert Young; UK Transmission 18th October 1980
After being the near victims of a road rage madman, a couple who’ve recently come across an authentic antique voodoo doll (affectionately named ‘Charlie Boy’) facetiously place a curse on the man. Thinking nothing more of it, they’re disturbed to find out the man has later been murdered. But then their friends begin dying one by one, seemingly in the order they’re standing in a photograph. Initially sceptical about the doll’s voodoo power they begin to believe that it is responsible for the deaths and seek a way of destroying it before they themselves fall victim - they’re next in line on the photograph. Not a completely original idea but one that could have been developed into something much more creepy given the inherently eerie nature of its central concept. What proves to be an obstacle to the episode’s success seems to be the pedestrian abilities of the director. The road rage (not a term used at the time obviously) threat is executed in such a lame manner that all possible tension is rapidly disposed of, and later on when the doll’s existence comes under threat the music that should have contributed to the impact of the scene actually turns the whole thing on its head with a completely inappropriate approach. What we’re left with is something very average and non-enticing.
Children of the Full Moon; Directed by Tom Clegg; UK Transmission 1st November 1980
A newly married couple, Tom and Sarah, are one their way to stay at an isolated rural house when their car develops a serious malfunction causing them to bring a halt to the journey. Heading off into the woods by foot they find an old mansion and ask the owner if they might use the telephone. The place is populated by an odd Hungarian woman who cultivates a group of young children, some her own, some supposedly fostered. It’s also home to her unseen husband. After having no luck finding some help they’re welcomed to stay for the night, but heading off to the car to collect some things Tom returns in a panic saying he was chased by something half human. In the middle of the night Sarah thinks she sees some creature at the window and Tom goes off to investigate. While he’s out Sarah is attacked by the creature in front of a hoard of smiling children, and Tom falls while attempting to climb back into the house, knocking himself unconscious. Waking up in hospital his wife tells him, contrary to what he thought he experienced, that he must have dreamt the whole thing, as they were actually in a car crash. Temporarily believing her he is somewhat perturbed to find, following the unexpected announcement of her pregnancy, that she’s not behaving like her normal self. Perusing forums I believe this episode is amongst the most fondly remembered of the series. It’s a fairly traditional piece that rises above the norm with a suitably sinister family and, as is fairly common for HHOH, a country location off the beaten track - these places seemingly home to all manner of nasties. The episode is also concludes in a pretty dark fashion, rounding out a fairly satisfying tale that could easily have been extended to feature length.
The Thirteenth Reunion; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 20th September 1980
Writing for the woman’s page of a newspaper, Ruth Cairns is given what she feels is yet another trivial assignment when her editor asks her to investigate a harsh but revolutionary new dieting process being promoted by a small hospital. There she finds attendees are virtually humiliated into slimming by a sergeant-like motivator, but there’s some light when she meets a professional man there who takes her to dinner and subsequently arranges to see her again. On his way home he is the victim of a fatal car accident but her suspicions are aroused when one of the employees of the local funeral parlour comes to her suggesting something strange is going on there, with bodies being unofficially shuffled about and the like. Thinking she’s finally onto a decent scoop she probes further only to find the body of her newfound boyfriend is missing. What draws her attention back to the slimming club is the apparent fact that they were contrarily trying to ‘fatten’ him up just before his death. Packing a fair few ideas into its fifty minutes this one certainly doesn’t waste much time, taking the heroine through a number of locations and in confrontation with several people as she gets deeper into her quest, which is ultimately one of career advancement. A couple of the scenarios presented are hardly politically correct in today’s society, demonstrating as they do the onscreen humiliation of fat people for example, but this was made in an era when people weren’t specifically looking to become offended due to some self proclaimed understanding of what makes an ideal world. I’m rarely concerned by such material, preferring to leave that to the acutely political perceptiveness of others while I sit back and enjoy what I’m watching (that was, after all, the fundamental objective). Julia Foster plays her character amicably under the assured direction of Peter Sasdy (despite what it says on the Carlton packaging). The final act is ahead of its time and suitably morbid, ending on a rather anti-commercial note, though I’ll refrain from giving details so as not to spoil it for others. Thanks to a story that’s a little more varied than what one might expect for television of the period, as well as the irreverent nature of the outcome, this proves to be one of the better HHOH episodes.
Carpathian Eagle; Directed by Francis Megahy; UK Transmission 8th November 1980
A crazy femme fatale is loose and choosing seemingly random male victims to butcher before disappearing to leave the police with a serial killer mystery on their hands. The officer in charge of the investigation (Anthony Valentine) meets up with a female writer whose work seems to resemble the modus operandi used by the killer a little too much, quickly progressing into a relationship with the creative woman. What he doesn’t realise is that she becomes so obsessed with her own work that an apparent affliction of Dissociative Identity Disorder (split personality) is causing her to virtually become her subjects even to homicidal extremes. Don’t worry about this being a spoiler as the point is revealed fairly early on. While the story ends in a relatively mundane fashion it is kept alive by an adeptly crafted script and excellent standards of acting from Valentine (still working in TV to this day). Suzanne Danielle also makes a striking lead female but most amusing is the appearance of a young Pierce Brosnan as a hormone-driven jogger who is brutally murdered after all of about four minutes of screen time - bet this doesn’t go on his CV anymore.
Guardian of the Abyss; Directed by Don Sharp; UK Transmission 15th November 1980
Beginning almost in the tradition of a Hammer movie we’re plunged into a world of occultist, mind control, bloody sacrifice and the resurrection of long dead gods. Coming into contact with what appears to be a nice piece of silverware it becomes obvious to Michael (Ray Lonnen) and his girlfriend that it’s something far more when another collector offers them ridiculous amounts of money for it. On his way to have the plate valued Michael nearly runs down a girl who is on the run after nearly becoming the victim of a ritualistic sacrifice in the hands of a Satanic sect. Recognising the plate she tells him that it was owned by the (real life) sixteenth century mathematician and occultist, John Dee. A struggle ensues for both the girl and the plate (revealed to be a scrying glass, something used for supernatural visualisation, fortune telling, etc.). Quite adventurous this episode showcases the talents of John Carson, the next best thing to James Mason, here almost resuming a very similar role to the one he played in Plague of the Zombies. There are nice touches of imagination occasionally punctuating, such as Carson’s hypnotic tilting of his head causing Lonnen’s character to lose balance, plus a couple of tense moments that add a little new life to a story that’s not particularly innovative. The music is also fairly conventional but appropriate for the material.
Growing Pains; Directed by Francis Megahy; UK Transmission 4th October 1980
The final segment in the set begins with what initially appears to be an almost Omen-like scenario: grieving from the strange death of their natural son Terence and Laurie Morton adopt a strange child who seems to be responsible for all manner of ghastly occurrences from cars spinning out of control to maggots on food and influence over an uncharacteristically homicidal rottweiler. Simultaneously his botanist surrogate father is working on a plant that is intended to help with third world starvation by providing an abundance of protein, a potential side effect being hallucinogenic effects - are the family imagining it or is there something more supernatural happening thanks to their newly acquired child? While the episode is not especially admired it does manage to maintain a sense of the uncanny throughout as we’re kept on our toes by the decidedly unorthodox behaviour of the Mortons’ new son. He reminds me a little of the offbeat girl from The Child and, while the actor himself seems incapable of realistically reflecting emotion in his performance, the largely apathetic role suits his range of abilities and blank face quite well. The ambiguity of the narrative may have been intentional or it could be a sign that the film-makers themselves were unsure which direction to take it, something that becomes vaguely apparent by the final quarter. Other than that, it’s not a bad way to finish off a great boxed set.