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DVD Review: The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films

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There are six movies included in The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films, which will be released April 6. Widely known for horror movies, Hammer made these six suspensers from 1958 to 1963. This is a solid collection of well made films, mostly in the vein of psychological thriller. Although we are familiar with some of the plot basics presented, there are enough unexpected complications to hold our interest throughout each title. Each film includes clever writing exhibited either in dialogue or plot developments; one stands out above the rest in terms of drama and relevance. It is a pleasure to be able to see all of them.

Stop Me Before I Kill (a/k/a The Full Treatment, 1960) is a little manic for film noir, but it’s a good example of '60s noir. Following his wedding, a race car driver (Ronald Lewis) has a terrible automobile accident that puts him into a four-week coma, but spares his wife (Diane Cilento) any significant injury. His doctors do not agree that he is well enough, after nearly a year of treatment, to travel to France for his belated honeymoon (“Would you enjoy a honeymoon with a post-concussional patient?”). The two doctors’ short consultation is the highlight of Stop Me Before I Kill, with snide remarks about health insurance and this exchange:

“The man is emotionally unstable.”

“Who isn’t these days?”

So off Alan and Denise Colby go to beautiful Cannes. Alan is soon driven by homicidal impulses to strangle Denise, which is not a good thing (although the ever-chirpy, annoying Denise wouldn’t be all that missed by the audience). At their hotel, they meet Dr. David Prade (Claude Dauphin), a friendly psychiatrist who takes an interest in the couple. Due to Alan’s head injury, he frequently misinterprets what anyone says, and becomes unreasonably angry (he seems more bipolar than neurotic). As the story unfolds, we are aware that Dr. Prade is a little weird himself, not only because he’s a middle-aged psychiatrist living with his mum. Denise stays with Alan even though he tries to kill her a few times, and Dr. Prade treats him successfully. Unfortunately, that’s not the happy ending. The plot thickens…

What sets Stop Me Before I Kill apart from its contemporaries is its cinematography. Filmed in black and white, it is filled with shadows, tight shots, and moody atmosphere. At points, the dialogue is laughable, but that’s from a 21st century perspective. Stop Me Before I Kill would have benefited from having about 20 minutes edited from its 107 minute running time.

Cash on Demand (1961) stars reliable Hammer Films star Peter Cushing who, in later films, would appear as Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein. Here he is a grinchy, scroogey bank manager named Fordyce, two days before Christmas. He is imperious and demanding, suspicious and mean, expecting nothing less than perfection from the bank’s staff (“This isn’t a post office. People who come into this bank expect efficiency.”). He starts his morning by calling two employees on the carpet and threatening their jobs. He is then visited by a man (Andre Morell as Hepburn) identifying himself as a representative of the bank’s insurers, looking into security.

The plot of a man’s family being held hostage while someone makes a demand for cash is a familiar one, but it plays out well in Cash on Demand. Hepburn, the urbane bank robber, is coldly cruel yet serves as Fordyce’s social conscience. The tension is palpable; when we hear an alarm we feel concern until we are assured it is merely a fire truck passing. Despite Hepburn’s meticulous planning, things are complicated by a steady falling snow, a window washer, and Fordyce’s vault-opening panic. In the end, Cash on Demand turns out to be a quirky, satisfyingly delightful Christmas story.

The earliest film in this collection is 1958’s The Snorkel, an entry in the why-doesn’t-anyone-believe-my-stepfather-is-a-murderer sub-genre. Since the film opens with the murder of Candy’s (Mandy Miller) mother by her stepfather, Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck), we believe her. Candy also claims that stepdaddy murdered her real father. It has an enjoyably macabre ending (though somewhat spoiled for the more sinister amongst us by the denouement which we can cleverly twist to suit our own evil desires). Again, another familiar storyline that is very well executed, proving that it’s not so much the story, but the telling.

Looking over screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s résumé, I am astounded by how much he has written for both the movies and television, and almost as shocked as by how many things he’s written that I’ve seen. Credited as one of the writers of The Snorkel, Sangster wrote the script for another film in this collection, Maniac (1963). Starting with the kidnap and attack of a school girl, Maniac quickly switches to a small café where Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Matthews) stops for a cognac. He is followed by a woman with whom he has words—final words. She drives off in a 1963 huff, and he inquires of the lovely barmaid (Liliane Brousse as Annette) if there is a room available. She refers him to her stepmother, Eve Beynat (Nadia Gray), and before long Jeff has a place to stay and is doing the twist with Annette. A very reserved twist. Eve looks on with disdain.

Before you can say Lolita, Mama Beynat is making moves on Jeff. Unable to sleep through the hot night, both Annette and Jeff are wandering around outside, and you know what that leads to — board games. Just as they begin to kiss, Mama shows up, sends Annette to bed, and rolls the dice (literally) with Jeff. The next day, Mama takes Annette’s place on a picnic date with Jeff. She’s brought lots of food, lots of wine, but no games. As it turns out, Georges (Eve’s hubby, Annette’s dad) is at the funny farm for welding a man to death four years ago.

Jeff and Eve go horseback riding along the beach, which leads (of course) to sex. Jealously, Annette watches them kiss at the bedroom door and has a mini tantrum. Jeff, after only a few days at the café, confesses his love to Eve. (Advice to the lovelorn: invest in horses.) What follows is a goofy plot to spring Georges (Donald Houston) so that Eve and Jeff can salve their consciences (because she’s married, and they are sinning against both her husband and God).

The simplest escape in the history of motion pictures is followed by a variety of complications, beginning with a surprise guest in the trunk of the car. Not to worry, though, he’s dead. Georges has a plan, and sadly the madman’s plan makes more sense than the scheme Eve and Jeff hatched. I’ve always found acetylene torches to be a little scary; they are put to good use in Maniac. The plot twists with double-crosses, keeping viewers guessing until the end.

Never Take Candy from a Stranger (a/k/a Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, 1960 ) starts creepily with two little girls on a swing being watched through binoculars by an old man. We know this film is about a child molester, and aren’t surprised by this. What happens next is both terrible and unexpectedly disturbing. Both girls had gone into the man’s house and for the promise of candy, they take off their clothes and dance for him. This isn’t the disturbing part—it’s not shown, but described by one of the girls, Jean Carter (Janina Faye). When her mother (Gwen Watford) wants to notify the police, both her mother (the child’s grandmother) and her husband (Patrick Allen) try to discourage her. When a report is made to the police, the captain in charge encourages them to drop the charges (“no real harm’s been done). Shockingly, everyone but the mother feels that nothing happened to the girls.

The Carters are new in town. Peter Carter has just been appointed principal of the high school, and they are soon ostracized for going to the police. It seems everyone knows that Mr. Olderberry (Felix Aylmer) has an unhealthy interest in children. However, the Olderberry family founded the town and are, paradoxically, well respected. They are powerful and run the place. Olderberry’s son Richard uses heavy-handed intimidation, attempting to coerce the Carter family into dropping the case. Everyone in the town conspires to thwart the Carters, including the father of the other girl, Lucille.

The case goes to court, but clearly the fix is in. When the defense attorney cross-examines Jean, it is cringe-inducing. The whole defense rests on the allegation that Jean made up the story; the defense attorney savagely rips into her. Olderberry is freed after the judge calls Peter Carter and the attorneys into chambers and pressures Carter to drop the charges. Olderberry's record may be clean, but he’s still a pervert; thus, tragedy follows. As it builds to its climax Never Take Candy from a Stranger is excruciatingly horrific. It is an intense and frightening film that is as valid today as ever.

These Are the Damned (a/k/a The Damned, 1963) features a crazy soundtrack, teddy boys, government experiments, and repulsive love scenes between a 50-year-old and a 20-year-old (gender is irrelevant). Of the six films, it was the only one with which I was familiar. The teddy boys are a group of black leather-clad thugs chasing Simon (Macdonald Carey) and Joan (Shirley Anne Field). The boys’ theme song is the infectious “Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash; Black leather, black leather, crash, crash, crash.” Can you dig it?

King (Oliver Reed), leader of the teddy boys, chases Simon and Joan onto a secret government compound that houses nine special 11-year-olds. The children rescue all three of them. This is the only film included in the collection that strays from suspense into the realm of science fiction. Although it starts off nearly silly, it becomes dark and ends tragically.

All of the films in The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films were filmed in black and white; this three-disk collection includes two films on each disk and theatrical trailers. While most of the subject matter is the stuff of noir, the stories are intelligently told and riveting, although many of the psychology principles applied throughout are charmingly dated.

Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films? Absolutely; it’s a treasure trove of Hammer’s most intriguing films.

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