By Cleaver Patterson.
The prolific Hammer Films was a company which never ceased to amaze, both in its choice of subject and in the quality and quantity of its output. From the highs of their iconic takes on the haemoglobin drinking Count in Dracula (1958) and grotesque DIY surgery of their monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) to Bette Davis’ ‘mother-in-law from hell’ in the bizarre black comedy The Anniversary (1968), they created some of the most memorable characters in horror cinema. Of course the studio, which in 1968 was the first film company to win the prestigious Queen’s Award to Industry, also had its fair share of productions they’d rather forget.
This year StudioCanal has been releasing a selection of Hammer titles in restored editions, unleashing the studio’s best-loved titles upon a whole new generation of freak fans. Inevitably however, amongst the gems, you get the odd dud as this latest selection proves. Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) may be an atmospheric blend of historical fact and artistic licence, whilst The Devil Rides Out (1968) is frequently highlighted amongst the pinnacles of the studio’s work. Unfortunately though, the third included, The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), is a tedious example of how even Hammer didn’t always get it right, begging the question as to why it was chosen for upgrade treatment over other more worthy titles.
Rasputin: The Mad Monk, based on true events in pre-revolution St Petersburg, Russia, revolves around Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lee), a mysterious monk who appears to have unearthly powers with which he helps the sick. By exerting his evil influence over Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina (Renée Asherson), he manages to infiltrate his way into the Russian court where his presence has terrible consequences for all those whose path he crosses.
The Devil Rides Out features The Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) who are are growing concerned for their friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). Simon has joined an obscure society led by the sinister Mocata (Charles Gray), who is having an increasingly unhealthy hold over the impressionable young man. When Richleau and Rex discover that the innocent face of the society is a cover for occult practices, they realise the race is on to save Simon’s soul from a fate worse than death.
Finally The Mummy’s Shroud, set in 1920’s Egypt, sees an expedition, led by the archaeologist Sir Basil Walden (André Morell) unearth the tomb of an ancient child prince. The remains are taken to Cairo, where they are displayed in a museum alongside the shroud which covered them. Unfortunately for the archaeologists the descendants of the family, given the task of guarding the prince’s tomb, have awoken the mummy of the prince’s chief slave who now wreaks a bloody revenge on those who desecrated his master’s resting place.
The Devil Rides Out, and to a lesser degree Rasputin: The Mad Monk, hold a special place in the heart of all true Hammer fans. The classic visualisation of Dennis Wheatley’s bestselling tale of satanic goings-on in England’s Home Counties, and the gothic-edged interpretation of one of the most shadowy and murderous periods of Russian history, are brought to life with an excitement which never lets up. Where Hammer stumbled in later years was when it became clear – as with their 1970’s series of contemporary Dracula films, which were horrific for all the wrong reasons – that the cast and crew had lost faith in the proceedings. Here however, it’s obvious that those involved, like Lee and Shelley in Rasputin: The Mad Monk and Lee again, with Gray, in The Devil Rides Out, believe one hundred percent in what they are doing and as a result so does the audience. Actors of such standing lent the productions a degree of gravitas, without overwhelming plots that race along at a cracking pace.
Which is where The Mummy’s Shroud fails. Unfortunately its direction, by Hammer stalwart John Gilling who was also responsible for the studio’s superb Cornish duo The Reptile (1966) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), and the story by Gilling and Anthony Hinds, have the impression they were done by numbers, with both aspects lacking any real spark. One-dimensional sets, garish gore – the lashings of blood in particular have an overtly fake appearance – and a basic plot, make the film memorable for all the wrong reasons. Despite having Gilling and Hinds on board, along with Bernard Robinson as production designer, The Mummy’s Shroudlacks the overall style and sharpness of the studio’s earlier productions. In front of the camera, the absence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, either of whose presence may have saved it, but whose appearances at Hammer were becoming less frequent, is glaringly obvious.
That said, The Mummy’s Shroud retains a quirky ‘wooden’ charm that is still appealing. Along with The Devil Rides Out and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, it encapsulates perfectly why, at their best, Hammer outings were sublime whilst, even at their worst, they were far superior to a lot of horror films produced both before and since.
Fully restored and available individually on DVD/Blu-ray double play, the films were released in the UK in October and come with a host of extras including brand new documentaries, still’s galleries and audio commentary.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.