My late brother was a big fan of the Hammer horror films and anything starring Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing, so he left me with a nice little collection of their films. Here’s my first dip into the selection, which I’ll be chipping away at over time.
THE MUMMY (1959)
While Hammer films are impressive and set a strong tone with their period design and costumes, The Mummy is a perfect example of how they were more about horror style and indulgent story-telling rather than actual scary substance, which is why this cheap thrills and chills seeker wasn’t a fan of many of them.
Peter Cushing and his team of archaeologists ignores the warnings of a man who tells them not to open the tomb of an ancient princess.
When they don’t listen, the dude resurrects the servant that was mummified and buried with her to protect her in death—Christopher Lee! Yes, Lee is the mummy in this film. Awesome.
He goes around committing a few low key revenge murders, there are agonizingly long and melodramatic flashbacks to the burial of the princess and resurrection of the mummy, and just when I thought I couldn’t be any more disappointed, the dude who resurrected the mummy goes on a killing spree, dragging the mummy along with him like a pet. Yawn.
THE GORGON (1964)
One of few Hammer films my brother made me watch that stuck with me, The Gorgon introduced me to the concept of “Medusa” (along with an episode of Popeye), and inevitably it’s what prompted me to write Snakehead, the latest installment of my Comfort Cove gay horror series.
And damn, this movie stills holds up for me, despite being a period piece. Peter Cushing plays a doctor that doesn’t believe the tale of Megaera, who supposedly haunts his small town. No idea why she’s not called Medusa—the film voted for the lesser known evil of two mythological sisters.
I also have no idea why the town doesn’t do something about her since she seems to reside in a castle in town that everyone avoids—until they hear her haunting siren singing, which draws individuals to go seek her out. Once they see her they turn to stone.
These scenes are quite eerie, and the setting is perfectly creepy. We only see the gorgon from afar under dramatic light for most of the film, and it is so spooky I can’t get enough of it.
Christopher Lee shows up to hunt down the gorgon and also helps to indulge us with more details of her mythology, including aspects involving the moon and mirrors.
And of course we get to see the gorgon’s “hideous” face and snakes up close at the end. Eek!
THE SKULL (1965)
Although it brings together Cushing and Lee (just a little), The Skull isn’t a Hammer film, and it shows. The atmosphere is there (for instance, it begins with a man digging up a grave), but it’s dumbfounding how slow it is with so little happening.
Cushing plays a man that collects occult and supernatural items. He scores a skull that’s supposed to be that of Marquis de Sade. His friend Christopher Lee warns him away from it. He keeps it.
There’s skull POV as this item begins to haunt Cushing.
It floats around a lot and gives him some unnerving visions for most of the movie! I know it was the 1960s, but if you’re going to delve into de Sade, someone’s face needs to fall victim to some scat action or something!
The most this skull does is take some lives on its own and then possess a couple of people to do the killing. Really nothing thrilling going on here. I dare say The Skull has no backbone.
HORROR EXPRESS (1972)
Even though it’s a period piece, Horror Express comes from 1972 and has a more contemporary feel in that there’s a pretty creepy monster and a whole lot of gore. It also has the dark, isolated, claustrophobic setting of a train. EEK!
There’s a very aristocratic set of passengers on board, and everyone seems to have a dirty secret, like Christopher Lee, an anthropologist transporting a frozen humanoid specimen he discovered.
Naturally, it escapes. Yay!
The creature lurks in the shadows and attacks passengers, causing their eyeballs to bulge out of their skulls at first, and then eventually possessing them.
It’s visually freaky, but the film lacks the extra oomph of jump scares—the monster’s presence is always announced with melodrama in the style of movie monsters of prior decades, as if to protect the faint of heart.
Meanwhile, Peter Cushing is a doctor who does some grisly autopsies of victims, and Telly Savalas makes an odd appearance late in the film, right when the monster action turns into totally satisfying chaos.