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Posts Tagged ‘Hammer House of Horror’

Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that, whatever undertaking you are engaged in, it can only be improved by the judicious addition of some Peter Cushing. I don’t really feel I’ve written about this magnificent, iconic actor nearly enough here on the blog, and with the centenary of his birth only a few days away this feels like the ideal moment to rectify that.

While Peter Cushing did much of his most memorable work away from Hammer (and I’m thinking here of 1984, the Doctor Who movies, Star Wars, and so on), it’s impossible to argue with the notion that he’s one of the performers most closely linked with the studio. So we will be looking at some Hammer over the course of the next few posts. I don’t currently have to hand a copy of The Curse of Frankenstein, Cushing’s first work with Hammer Films, and so instead I thought we would take a look at his final role in association with the company.

This is in The Silent Scream, an episode of Hammer House of Horror from 1980. By this point Hammer had basically packed up as a maker of theatrical movies and were trying to break into TV, in association with ITC. House of Horror is an anthology show, made entirely on film, and with some surprisingly big names appearing (usually either very early or late in their careers). As is fairly standard with anthology series, the quality of the episodes varies wildly, but The Silent Scream (directed by Alan Gibson, written by Francis Essex) is towards the top of the pile.

silentscream

By this time in the final, post-Tarkin phase of his career, Peter Cushing is top-billed, but the main character is Chuck, played by a considerably pre-stardom Brian Cox (actor not physicist). As the story opens, Chuck has just got out of prison, much to the delight of his lovely wife (Elaine Donnelly). The first scene when he gets home is a masterclass in how to bombard the audience with exposition without them noticing: they live in a remote house miles from anyone else (they have no phone). They are very short of cash. Chuck is a kleptomaniac safecracker with a pathological fear of confinement. He has struck up a friendship with a prison visitor who runs the local pet shop. His wife is clearly much too good for him. All of these things except the last one turn out to be crucial plot points, yet you never quite get the sense of the script hitting you over the head with them: this stuff is hardly Shakespeare, but professionally done nevertheless.

Anyway, Chuck trots off to the pet shop to say thank you to the prison visitor, Mr Blucek (Cushing). Cushing opts to play the part with a faint German accent, which suits the character, and a trilby, which is a more questionable choice. Nevertheless he goes into Polite and Genial with an Undeniable Hint of Obscure Menace mode, which indicates to the audience that things may be about to go badly for Chuck.

It’s not really surprising that Chuck spends a lot of time in prison, as he is clearly a dim bulb, not putting two and two together when Blucek reveals his hobby, which is conditioning animals so they can be safely contained without conventional cages. Even the fact that there is a menagerie out the back of the shop containing lions, leopards, kangaroos and bears does not prompt Chuck to realise there is something very odd going on here.

Well, needless to say, Mr Blucek is intent upon the final phase of his experiments in conditioning, which involves training a human to accept confinement. This involves the use of lots of sound cues – buzzers and bells and so on – and high-voltage electrical force fields. Presumably Blucek has all this stuff lying around from his former life as a Nazi war criminal, as I don’t think it’s standard pet shop issue. Soon enough Chuck finds himself back in a cell and at Blucek’s mercy, while his missus runs around producing a little mild padding for the episode.

Actually, I’m being too harsh: for an episode of a horror anthology series, The Silent Scream works really hard to stay borderline-plausible, despite the daftness of the central premise. When Chuck first goes missing, his wife goes round to the pet shop to see what’s happened to him. Blucek denies all knowledge, but Chuck’s coat is hanging up where she can see it. At this point I was getting ready to shout ‘Go to the police, you stupid woman!’ only for the next scene to open with her… well, going to the police. (Who still don’t do anything.)

This is the kind of show they just don’t make any more – the pre-credits sequence concludes with an electrocuted tiger, and later on there’s a scene with an exploding puppy, which scores points for sheer ballsiness – it probably loses them straight away for unintentional humour, but you can’t have everything. If we’re perfectly honest, Brian Cox only really gives a workmanlike performance as Chuck, but Elaine Donnelly is very good, and Peter Cushing, as usual, commits completely to his role, investing Blucek with a slightly detached icy malevolence that commands the screen whenever he appears.

Despite all this, I have to say that The Silent Scream is never really more than okay, although the reasons for this are initially hard to pin down. I think it’s partly because none of the characters is really very likeable – Donnelly is the one who comes closest, but you have to wonder what she sees in Cox. Also, as a horror story it’s just not that frightening – it’s hard to make a man stuck in a room seem properly scary. If most of the episode was a two-hander between Cox and Cushing, set in the cell, it might have worked better, but we keep cutting away to the wife running about. There’s a half-decent blackly ironic twist ending, but even this is implicitly nasty rather than genuinely scary. Still, as I say, this is one of the better episodes of the series and a good showcase for Cushing’s talents: this man could make the magic work on TV as easily as in a movie.

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