The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films review, The Icons of Suspense Collection DVD review
Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, André Morell, MacDonald Carey, Viveca Lindfors, Ronald Lewis, Diane Cilento
The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films

Reviewed by Ross Ruediger



hen one hears the name “Hammer Films,” usually the first thing that leaps to mind is the production company’s Gothic horror output of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The connection is no doubt made with good reason, as much of that material has stood the test of time, even if most of it’s never really been given its proper cinematic due. The number of pictures Hammer was behind stretches well into the triple digits, which is an astonishing feat for what was then the equivalent of an independent studio. This new collection offers up a sampling of some of their non-horror output, by presenting six films spread across three discs from the realm of suspense. Easily, the highlight of this set isn’t actually a suspense film at all – it’s really more of a sci-fi piece called “These are The Damned,” but since it’s presented as the final film on the set, we’ll leave it for the end of the review. Half the movies on this set really work, while the other three leave something to be desired to varying degrees. These are some pretty obscure titles, and prior to this set, they’ve never been commercially available on DVD here in the States.

First up is a psychological thriller, hyperbolically titled “Stop Me Before I Kill!,” and directed by Val Guest, who’s best known for helming the ‘50s “Quatermass” movies. Professor Bernard this is not, but it’s still a mildly engaging piece of gaslighting that, if guilty of anything, is a bit long-winded; at 108 minutes it’s the lengthiest film presented here. Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) and his wife Denise (Diane Cilento) are involved in a car accident. After recovering, the husband continually finds himself driven to throttle the wife. Now I know what you’re thinking, and you shouldn’t be thinking that because she’s actually a very sweet lady. Eventually, the couple meets a seedy psychiatrist (Claude Dauphin) who may be able to help, but who may also have ulterior motives. This dated movie so thoroughly rakes the concept and profession of psychiatry over the coals, it’s amazing the Church of Scientology hasn’t funded a remake for Tom Cruise to star in.

The second feature on the first disc is “Cash on Demand,” a bland but descriptive title for a good little movie starring Peter Cushing as a prickly bank manager who takes his job way too seriously. On this particular afternoon, an insurance company detective (André Morell) arrives, only he isn’t with an insurance company at all – he’s an extremely well organized thief who’s holding Cushing’s wife and child hostage. Now Cushing must help Morell empty the bank vaults while playing it straight so that his employees are none the wiser. This is a surprisingly effective character piece that largely amounts to a two-man show playing out in real time. Speaking of remakes, with a few tweaks, this could easily be reworked for today’s audiences, as there wouldn’t be a better time to see someone ruthlessly sticking it to a banker.

Disc Two offers up the weakest entries in the set. The first, “The Snorkel,” has a terrific opening sequence and a decent twist at the end, but everything in between is fairly ordinary. The sleazy Eurotrash villain (Peter van Eyck) has found the perfect way to off his wife. He gets away with it, and the only person who’s certain of his guilt is the dead wife’s teenage daughter, Candy (Mandy Miller). She knows because she saw him kill her father years before, and wasn’t able to prove it then either. The bulk of the picture is a pretty uninspired cat and mouse game between the two, with Betta St. John (“The City of the Dead”) as a family friend playing the naïve referee.

“Maniac” (which is not to be confused with the 1980 William Lustig picture of the same name) is a “Psycho” rip-off of sorts that I frankly found impossible to get into. There’s a mother, a daughter, and the mother’s lover as the central characters, and the maniacal father of the title, but outside of that and a pretty startling blowtorch sequence at the start, I couldn’t tell you anything else about the movie. I fell asleep watching it not once but twice, although in fairness, that may be because it was the last movie on the set that I viewed and I was probably burnt out by that point.

Disc Three, a double-feature doozy, kicks off with “Never Take Candy from a Stranger,” a movie David Lynch would surely adore, assuming he doesn’t already. It’s a thoroughly icky film about a child predator – although given that it was made in 1960, it’s fairly tame in its exploration, even if not in its intentions. Heck, I feel nasty just writing about it. Two young girls are lured to a big house, where a dirty old man asks them to take their clothes off and dance around naked in exchange for candy. He doesn’t touch them, and after eating their candy, they redress and go on their merry way. All of this happens offscreen, but we are given the lurid details when one of the girls, Jean (Janina Faye), goes home and innocently recounts the story to her parents, and they are understandably horrified.

What follows is a nightmare for the family, because as bad as the situation is, it gets worse when the entire town seemingly conspires to protect the old man, who’s the patriarch of the family that owns the local sawmill. (One would like to think such behavior is a product of its time, but clearly such cover-ups are just as likely to happen today as they were 50 years ago.) In the third act, the old man goes on the prowl once again in an unbearably tense sequence, made even worse because the man never utters even a single word of dialogue in the movie. He’s like Frankenstein’s monster, only not so innocent. This isn’t a nice movie, and probably one few will care to view repeatedly, but therein lays its power. Yes, sometimes the monsters are indeed real.

Finally, we come to “These are The Damned” (no relation to “Village of the Damned” or “Children of the Damned”), a movie from ‘63 that’s such a thoroughly oddball piece of cinema it’s difficult to know exactly how to talk about it. To say that, at least at its start, it feels like a sort of precursor to “A Clockwork Orange” wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. A gang of leather-clad thugs called Teddyboys whistle and goosestep their way around London. Their leader, King (Oliver Reed), dresses sharper than the rest, and carries an umbrella. He’s got a flirtatious sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), of whom he’s weirdly overprotective. In the opening scene, Joan attracts the attention of an older American man, Simon (MacDonald Carey), whom the thugs proceed to beat the crap out of and then rob. The movie follows the beaten Simon, and he appears to be not quite the schmo we thought he was at the start, what with his fancy holiday boat and smooth demeanor. Joan surfaces once again, and despite the beating, Simon remains smitten. King shows up to stake his unwholesome brotherly claim and in a daring display of bravado, Simon steals Joan away on the boat.

The bulk of the first act has little to do with the rest of the film outside of being an immensely clever way of setting up the tensions between the three characters, and perhaps also to hint that this film is perhaps not set in the here and now of ’63, but rather a more dangerous time for society in the near future. From there, “Damned” shifts to a military base, where a very peculiar experiment is taking place that involves a small group of children hidden away in an underground bunker. Simon, Joan and King all end up there and must look past their personal feelings about each other in order to deal with the horrific issues at hand. All the while, the feeling of nuclear paranoia hovers above the proceedings, giving the movie an edge that moves it beyond a piece of ‘60s pulp and into another arena altogether. As if all that weren’t enough, there’s also the song the Teddyboys sing called “Black Leather Rock” which will remain stuck in your head long after the end credits roll. It feels as if it were borrowed from another movie, which is paradoxically why it works so well here. This flick is a real find, and people who dig on bizarre filmic fare from this time period will find a great deal of engaging material to savor on repeat viewings.

All six movies are in black and white, and each (despite what the initial press release sent my way claimed) are also presented in their proper aspect ratios. The prints are clean and the video quality perfectly acceptable.  According to IMDB, a number of these films have floated around with different running times (not to mention titles) over the years, but it looks as if these are the complete versions for just about every film. It’s always difficult to assign a star rating to a set that veers from the wonderful to the banal such as this one does, so I’ve opted for an easy, middle of the road three stars, which is too low for “Damned,” yet too high for “Maniac.” Given the price, though, this is a steal, even with the dead weight that occupies about half its running time.

Aside from trailers for each film, there are no other extras. Also, the discs are stacked atop one another on one extra large spindle, which may annoy some consumers, so it seemed worth mentioning.

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