Once again, Mill Creek Entertainment rewards us with a pair of double-features from the Hammer Films vault (U.S. release courtesy of Columbia Pictures) on Blu-ray at an exceptional price; none of the studio’s vaunted gothic monster titles are included this time, so let’s see what we DO have, shall we?
Maniac (1963) Dir. Michael Cerreras (87 min. / B&W / 2.35:1)
Hammer/Columbia’s Halloween release for 1963 was a remake of The Old Dark House directed by William Castle and THIS thing, a not-uninteresting psychological (sort of) thriller (kind of) written by Jimmy Sangster.
The south of France. A young woman is raped; her father catches the guy and murders him with an acetylene torch, but then Dad is sent to an asylum for his troubles. The years pass, and handsome American artist Kerwin Mathews comes to town to paint; he's interested in the now-grown daughter, but is seduced by the mother, who is not named Mrs. Robinson. Mom suggests that if they spring her demented ex-husband from the asylum, they'll be able to run off together without the buttinsky daughter, and Mathews agrees. Murder results, though, and the whole thing's a sick plot, and half the cast appears to be dubbed, and George Pastell - the guy who always plays the Egyptian in the Mummy pictures - is really, really miscast as the police detective.
On the other hand, you've got Kerwin Mathews - Sinbad himself - smoking and drinking and whoring and dancing the twist, so the film isn't without interest. In the grand scheme of things, this is a routine thriller from Hammer. I know one or two of the Balconeers have said they don’t enjoy the “nasty, unpleasant movies” from Hammer, and this should be exhibit A - the injury to the face with a torch motif runs very heavy here, and the film's climax, involving the maniac chasing the girl through what appears to be the inside of a pyramid - is pretty intense.
On Blu-ray, the picture is paired with Fanatic (under its American title).
Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) Dir. Silvio Narizzano (97 min. / Color / 1.78:1)
Jimmy Sangster didn't write this one; Richard "Shrinking Man" Matheson did, and as a nice switch from Hammer’s many Psycho-inspired thrillers we get a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?-type.
Tallulah Bankhead, long in retirement, plays an old lady whose son was killed in a car crash; she invites his fiancé, Stefanie Powers, out to the house in the country for a memorial service. Turns out that Steffie can't leave once she gets there; the old bat's cuckoo as a jaybird and her religious mania leads her to "cleanse" Steffie so that she can marry the son up in heaven. Pretty soon there's a body in the basement and some stab wounds on our heroine and say, will nobody come rescue her?
A good movie, not too many shocks or even scares but interesting in its way, with a daffy harpsichord score and fluidly directed by Silvio Narizzano, a TV director (which no doubt helps give the film its TV-movie look). Donald Sutherland is the idiot gardener, and he goes as "full moron" as you can possibly go in a movie. Miss Power, all of 21, is fine and this film got her the part of The Girl from UNCLE back in the states. Miss Bankhead is wonderful, and apparently she was nice enough on the set, and every day the second filming ended her limo whisked her back to her hotel room, where she stayed until morning. The director remarked that she thought she was making utter crap, though, and joked about it throughout filming. Still, as those "batty old lady" movies of the 1960s go, this is one of the better ones.
Fanatic was released in the spring of '65 as a double feature with the non-Hammer remake of The Killers starring Ronald Reagan(!).
Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1959) Dir. Cyril Frankel (82 min. / B&W / 2:35:1)
The next double-feature disc takes us back to 1959, when the studio acquired quite a controversial property: the play The Pony Cart, about a little girl who accuses a neighbor of molesting her. The notoriety of the play (target of protests for allowing a little girl to appear in a "sex play" onstage) brought it of course much more attention than it would've normally earned, and Hammer snapped up the rights and signed 11-year-old Janina Faye, whose parents had pulled her from the cast of the play because of the controversy, to portray Jean, the little girl who makes the accusation. The censor applauded the script, for once, but suggested that it drop the words "rape" and "naked" and a reference to Lolita, and that the old man accused of the crime not be shown to look "lustful" when he is looking at the girls. It was AFTER the film was completed that the battlelines were drawn, with Hammer pushing for an "A" rating (children allowed in with adults) and the censor (who won, of course) insisting on the usual Hammer "X" (no children). Miss Faye therefore couldn't see it when it was finally released in the spring of 1960.
Jean and her friend Lucille are playing at a playground, unaware that an old man is watching them from his nearby house. Jean discovers she's lost her candy money; Lucille says she knows where they can get candy for free. That night, Jean tells her mother that she stepped on a nail; how was it your shoe was off, mum innocently asks. "All my clothes were off" was the response, and she then tells that old Mr. Olderberry gave them candy to take off their clothes and dance while he watched. What do do? Jean's daddy is new in town, and the Olderberrys are a rich family that practically employs the whole town. When Jean has screaming nightmares, daddy files a police report, but nobody, least of all the cops, wants to act on it.
Very serious but respectful take on a quite serious topic (obviously). Excellent cast, including Gwen Watford, Patrick Allen, and Michael Gwynn; Felix Aylmer, highly respected stage and screen actor, was given the key role of Mr. Olderberry Sr. (Aylmer, who played Polonius in Oliver's Hamlet, 1948, was hired to appease the censors, who were afraid that the role was going to be played as a typical Hammer monster).
Hammer, unsure how to market the movie, made it look like a police "manhunt" thriller (called Never Take Sweets from a Stranger) and the film didn't do particularly well in either the U.K. or the U.S. For many, many years, it was a very difficult film to see, but it’s quite worth a look.
Scream of Fear (1964) Dir. Seth Holt (82 min. / B&W / 1.66:1)
In addition to the monster movies he was penning for Hammer, Jimmy Sangster was intent on writing mysteries and suspense thrillers for other studios. Alas, he couldn't sell any of 'em, particularly inasmuch as he wanted to also act as producer. On the heels of Psycho, Hammer picked up this script, giving Sangster the producer's credit he asked for. He was only nominally the producer, being handed the director (Seth Holt) and star (Susan Strasberg, who came with the Columbia financing).
Teenage Miss Strasberg's governess has died, so she returns from school abroad after 10 years to rejoin her father and meet her stepmother, only daddy's nowhere to be found, creepy Dr. Christopher Lee is hanging around, and the house is lit so that dark shadows are across every face, even during sunny afternoon teas. Bob the helpful chauffeur is smitten with Susie so he's going to help her get to the bottom of the mystery, if there is one. Oh, and daddy's corpse keeps jumping up in weird places and scaring the hell out of her (and us).
Suitably convoluted plot, and more "waiting for something to happen" than "sitting on the edge of our seat," but not bad at all, and there are some good shocks with daddy's corpse, that's true. Mr. Lee, for some unknown reason, speaks in an outrageous French accent. Interestingly, the British Censors liked this one, comparing it favorable to Les Diaboliques(!); it was called Taste of Fear in the UK.
Lee has been quoted as saying this is the best film he made for Hammer, maybe 'cause they let him use that outrageous accent. Definitely one of the better ones, and clearly the best one of the four in these two releases.
The two discs (sold separately) include no bonus material but have English subtitles. The three B&W titles look and sound great, particularly Maniac: all three are big upgrades from the previously-released Sony DVDs. The only color film in the set, Die! Die! My Darling!, doesn’t look nearly as good, with speckles popping up from time to time, which could also be a result of the film’s popularity over the years. If you're a fan of this film, you're bound to be disappointed. In any case, with the low cost of the discs, they’re must-haves for genre fans. And if you overlooked the previous two Mill Creek Hammer double features, they’re still available: one has The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) and the other The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) and The Gorgon (1964).