BLOODSUCKERS, MAD SCIENTISTS, MONSTERS & MURDERERS: THE 20 BEST HAMMER HORROR FILMS
This is just my own personal 20 favorite Hammer horror movies. Some of these are genuine classics while others hold a special place for other reasons. Obviously quality fluctuates between some of the titles listed, but certain films appeal to me in different ways regardless of their adequacy or deficiencies.
1. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
Hammer Films enters the horror movie arena with a vengeance delivering a dynamite character study about a truly mad scientist with misguided dreams of aiding humanity. Peter Cushing goes down in history as the ultimate portrayal of the often cruel, yet indomitable Baron Victor Frankenstein. He played the role on six occasions with some of the pictures painting a more vicious interpretation than others. Cushing is so amazing, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role of the duplicitous and brutal Baron.
Chris Lee as Frankenstein's creation in his first of three heavy make up roles portraying monsters based on the classic Universal horror films of the 30's and 40's.
CURSE also delivers in the performance of Christopher Lee as the creature. His reveal has something of the same effect as Chaney's mask unveiling in the original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Cushing starred in six of seven Frankenstein entries. Ralph Bates headlined the other. A highly recommended horror masterpiece that should be seen by true horror fans to see just where their modern blood & guts extravaganzas sprang from.
2. HORROR OF DRACULA (1957-'58/released 1958)
The first and considered by most all Hammer aficionados to be the best of the series. It nonetheless got things off with a bang and solidified the Cushing and Lee team up previously laid down in Hammer's groundbreaking THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). This first outing contains an energy that would be increasingly lost as this popular vampire series continued. Lee likewise became disenchanted with the films as he was given less and less to do as the films wore on.
Another iconic image this time of Peter Cushing essaying the role of vampire slayer, Professor Van Helsing
Called simply DRACULA in the UK, Hammer's first foray into vampire lore has become one of the most recognizable and famous of the cinematic adaptations of Stoker's novel. Despite the huge success given the previous Frankenstein picture, Hammer's vampire series overshadows the experiments of the ambitious and sometimes deliciously evil Baron. Christopher Lee donned the cape for seven Hammer Dracula films essaying the role more than any other actor. HORROR OF DRACULA is a quintessential horror movie and required viewing for any serious horror fan.
Frankenstein, having survived the guillotine, finds himself another assistant in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958)
3. THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958)
The first and most obvious sequel in Hammer's Frankenstein series has Cushing's sardonic Baron escaping the guillotine and setting up a medical practice in Carlsbruck where he uses the body parts obtained from unwitting sick and tired peasants to construct a new creature. The body is to be the reward for his hunchback assistant for volunteering his brain for transplantation. Terrible consequences ensue involving cannibalism.
One of the most subtly gruesome of the Hammer pictures, Cushing is excellent as always. He gets a grand guinol comeuppance at the end, but once more escapes certain death in ironic fashion. The film was hurriedly put together but strong direction ensure it's a stable production providing some choice moments and good performances. One of the best scenes has the creation succumbing to cannibalistic tendencies after having been beaten half to death by a janitor. After spying the Baron's experimental monkey enjoying a piece of red meat, the creature turns to the now dead janitor and begins to salivate profusely.
THE MUMMY lives! Another significant Hammer horror again starring the dynamic duo of Cushing and Lee.
4. THE MUMMY (1959)
Hammer's first stab at the shuffling Egyptian shambler is a decidedly more energetic creation when compared to the Universal Mummy movies. Chris Lee undertakes the role of the creature again and plays him as a far more pitiable monster and one that moves in a more hasty fashion. The story is essentially the same as the Universal entries only with the addition of color and some brutal violence some of which was trimmed before the film was released. About the only negative I would levy at the film is that several of the action charged attack sequences take place at the same location.
Outgrossing HORROR OF DRACULA in America, the film guaranteed more similar films would follow. Sadly, the later Hammer mummy movies would suffer a decline in quality when compared to this entry. With three back to back blockbuster pairings of Cushing and Lee, more classic films with the dynamic duo were forthcoming as history would soon dictate. Three more Hammer mummy movies followed with the last, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, not featuring a mummy at all.
5. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1958/released 1959)
Not completely horror, but close enough. This Sherlock Holmes entry contains enough elements of dread and terror to qualify as a horror film. Peter Cushing truly delivers a whole heartedly memorable performance rife with self assurance and witty banter. Christopher Lee is on hand in a supporting role that never comes close to stealing the film away from Cushing who owns the film. Even when he's not onscreen, the viewer anxiously awaits his next scene; Cushing's performance is that good. Without Cushing, this movie would be far less enjoyable.
A most unusual Hammer film, it would be the company's only Sherlock Holmes picture. The films opening wisely plays up the horror and revenge motif to grab the attention of those put off by the Holmes mystery connotations. There's the expected red herrings and a strong sexual subtext and did I mention how good Peter Cushing is as the ingenious and crafty Sherlock Holmes? Directed by the ever reliable Terence Fisher.
7. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
Simply one of the finest, most sumptuously mounted horror movies ever made. Quite possibly Hammer's finest horror picture. Everything from set design to costuming to the horror action itself reeks of perfection and a meticulous eye towards detail. The title misleads as the opening narration informs us "Count Dracula is dead." Instead we get an even more eerie aristocratic vampire villain with a sordid family background.
Acting and performances are all top notch and Peter Cushing is even more dashing and acrobatically inclined than he was in his previous encounter with the more famous Transylvanian undead overlord. The villain, Baron Meinster (monster?), is also a bit more on the action side as opposed to Chris Lee's interpretation. The film contains one of the most stunning sequences in all of Hammer horror wherein Van Helsing is actually bitten by the lead vampire and prevents himself from succumbing to the undead bite by cauterizing the wound with a huge branding iron. One of the best oldeworld horror movies and highly recommended.
Big screen bad boy (both on and off), Oliver Reed in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, Hammer's lone venture into the cinema of the lycanthropus
6. THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1960/released 1961)
Frequent Hammer horror helmer, Terence Fisher directs the company's sole excursion into lycanthropy, but makes it count. Based on the novel, 'The Werewolf of Paris', the film was to be another risque British terror opus born from the aborted production of Hammer's THE INQUISITOR. Considering the main focus of the movie resulted from a rape of a mute servant girl by a half man, half animal beggar, the censors objected to the visualization of both bare flesh and fangs onscreen simultaneously.
The make up by Roy Ashton is exemplary and one of the most notable in the wolfman canon. Intense actor, Oliver Reed makes a big splash as the tragic character of Leon, the werewolf of the film. As usual, Terence Fisher builds his film around the triumph and eventual tragedy of the characters as opposed to the actual horror elements of the production. A fine film in Hammer's oeuvre, it works on several levels, both as a love story and a horror picture. Highly recommended for serious fans, those less patient may find it slow going for the most part.
8. DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965/released 1966)
Hammer's first official follow up to their lucrative Dracula series is both an entertaining and aggravating experience. First, Peter Cushing is conspicuous by his absence replaced by the more flagrant and blunt Father Sandor played with zeal by Andrew Keir. Second, Chris Lee utters not one word of dialog, instead playing the role as a hissing and snarling monster from the time he appears to the time he ends up buried beneath the icy tomb the finale finds him in. For years it has been stated that Lee was so incensed by the dialog given him that he refused to speak it opting to do the role silently. Apparently, according to conflicting reports, there never was any dialog in the original script for the Count to articulate despite Lee himself stating he felt the dialog given him was ridiculous, refusing to say the lines. In recent years, Lee still maintains the latter to be true.
Interestingly enough, some of the lines attributed to PRINCE OF DARKNESS had him uttering, "I am the apocalypse", a line he would speak in the later series entry, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973). This first sequel has a lot going for it, though. It contains one of the most gruesome means to resuscitate the Count (a scene which was even more grotesque in the script stages), a sexually ambiguous staking sequence and the first of many various means by which to destroy the lord of the undead; means that would seriously compromise vampires as a viable threat at least in British horror pictures. It holds a special place in my memory as it was the first Hammer film I remember vividly from childhood.
9. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1966/released 1967)
Peter Cushing returns for the fourth go round this time taking a decidedly less sinister approach in keeping with the previous entry, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964). Here, the ambitious Baron experiments with figuring the length of time by which the human soul exits the body the moment death occurs. Given an opportunity to test his theories on soul transference when a wrongly accused man is guillotined and his deformed girlfriend commits suicide, Frankenstein places the soul of the executed Hans into the body of the bent and broken Christina.
Now transformed into a ravishing beauty, Christina/Hans uses her wiles to exact revenge on the cruel and wealthy braggarts that led them to their doom. It's a fascinating storyline this time out made all the more somber by the characterizations of both the doomed lovers and the despicable bullies who deserve their bloody recompense. Cushing's character takes a slight backseat to the more interesting and detailed doomed lovers, Hans and Christina.
10. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1967/released 1968)
Based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, Hammer's first foray into the realm of satanism (not counting THE WITCHES from 1966) proves to be one of the most memorable of their horror output. Containing large doses of both action and horror, Fisher's film has a most extraordinary protagonist and antagonist. The movie is a constant battle of wits between good and evil resulting in a satanic tour de force wherein the heroes must survive a night of devilish oppression by satanic followers, a giant tarantula and the Devil himself atop a hellish steed.
Chris Lee plays the hero this time out in a role that could have been a choice role for Peter Cushing. Lee is wonderful and gets the chance to do something else besides scowl at the audience as per his usual Hammer outings. Future Bond villain and ROCKY HORROR criminologist, Charles Gray plays the villain, Mocata. It's an interesting change of pace for the studio and one that should be seen by any Hammer horror fan.
11. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)
Christopher Lee dons the cape of the king of the vampires once more in this production helmed by distinguished cinematographer, Freddie Francis when original director, Terence Fisher had to bow out after being hit by a car. Eschewing the focus on the young lovers of Fisher's movies, Francis puts a lot of emphasis on the visuals. It should be noted that Francis did shoot a lot of footage around the young couple, but these scenes were cut out.
This Dracula film is brimming with atmosphere and color. Even if the characters are relatively weak, the film makes up for it with its photographic genius. By this point, Lee had become increasingly disenchanted with playing the Dracula character as each succeeding film gave him less and less to do with the role. Nonetheless, this entry contains several notable sequences including a staking scene wherein Dracula is able to pull the bloody stake from his chest after the atheist that ran him through refuses to pray. A disintegration sequence was done for the finale but never made it into the picture. The film went on to become the most successful of the Dracula series at the box office.
12. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)
Peter Cushing returns to the role of the vile Baron and this time he plays the role as a sadist, rapist and wily blackmailer. Not since the first Hammer entry had the Baron been depicted as pure evil. Terence Fisher returns to the series and while placing heavy focus on the doomed lovers, equal screen time is given to Cushing. Here, Cushing has a partner, Doctor Brandt who has been placed inside a mental asylum. Brandt had learned a technique for the preservation of the human brain, knowledge that Frankenstein desires. He blackmails a young couple to accomplish his goal and causes a lot of death and anguish along the way.
The Baron's work disturbed yet again from FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED featuring Frankenstein at his most sadistic
There's also a secondary story arc involving the character of Doctor Richter played by Freddie Jones. There's a great scene where Richter, with the brain of Doctor Brandt in his skull, goes to see his wife, yet she is terrified as she doesn't recognize him. This film contains so many poignant and compelling performances, it's my favorite Frank flick. Another sequence that stands out is the rape scene wherein Frankenstein has his way with Anna played by the voluptuous Veronica Carlson. Cushing, Carlson and Fisher were all uncomfortable doing this scene and it can be seen on Cushing's face in the film.
13. TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969/released 1970)
Conceived as a Dracula film without Chris Lee after his disdain for the material, Ralph Bates was brought on board to replace the obstinate actor. When Hammer was reminded that their contract with the US distributor demanded that Lee star in the film, the plans for Bates to play the role were scuppered. Lee was brought back with far less to do than any of his other outings as there wasn't time to change the dialog to his liking. As THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN before it, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA picks up where the previous Dracula film had ended.
There is very little variance in this film from the others aside from the location switch to Victorian England. The usual revenge plot is on hand, but here, Dracula uses the children to punish the sins of the fathers. The film is a bit more gory than the other movies and it contains some intriguing subtext as well as brief flirtations of incestuous desire between father and daughter. Peter Sasdy takes over the directors chair and delivers a curious entry that is one of the best of Hammer's 1970's output. It also sports one of the most creative methods in dispatching of the Count by way of divine intervention. From here on out, it's mostly downhill for Hammer.
VAMPIRE LOVERS brought some interesting twists to the vampire mythos in an effort to inject some fresh blood into the bloodsucker sweepstakes
14. THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
Frequent British horror director Roy Ward Baker tackles this unusual vampire picture for Hammer Films. Realizing their Gothic horror pictures were losing steam amidst shifting audience trends, it was decided additional sex and violence would be infused if the soon to be struggling studio were to survive as a viable player in the film industry. Lesbianism was introduced into Hammer's vampire formula as well as changing up the mythology for the bloodsuckers.
Peter Cushing as General Spielsdorf by way of Van Helsing, vampire killer; Ingrid Pitt gives head in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
This was the first of a trilogy dealing with the Karnstein family and also the first of Hammer's horror productions without the aid of a major Hollywood studio behind them. Even with the lesbian angle, the film contains many striking set pieces and some choice atmosphere. The opening of the movie starts things off in grand and gory fashion backed by a strong soundtrack. Ingrid Pitt oozes sex appeal as the vampire, Marcilla. The participation of Peter Cushing helps immensely and he shines during the finale. The destruction of the Man In Black was eliminated to keep the character as a holdover for a sequel.
15. SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)
The first R rated Hammer Dracula movie (back then) is unique for several reasons. It's the most isolated of the series in that it seemingly stands on its own as if the other films do not exist. It also gives Chris Lee more to do and more dialog than all his Dracula films up to that point. The gore is amped up to an almost alarming rate and sees Dracula not only stabbing a victim to death(!), but also burning former Dr. Who, Patrick Troughton's back with a red hot sword.
There are also some notable moments taken directly from Stoker's novel such as the sight of Dracula scaling his castle walls as well as his dominion over animals preferably bats. The opening of the film shows just how distasteful it's going to be when a huge bat revives Dracula by puking up blood on his ashes. Another scene shortly thereafter showcases a group of outsized vampire bats massacring a group of women hiding within a church whilst the menfolk lay waste to Dracula's castle.
Despite the influx of carnage, a scene of Dracula drinking blood from the stab wounds inflicted on one of his victims was cut, but stills of this scene survive. The Gothic ambiance of the Hammer horrors of the 60's is mostly gone, but the film does possess a gloomy atmosphere unlike any of the other films in the series. Some surreal matte paintings aid this lower budgeted than usual production. This entry has its detractors, but is nonetheless a favorite among fans including myself.
16. DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE (1971)
Hammer returns to territory previously explored in their TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960). Only this time, the exploitation element is increased and room is made not only for Jack the Ripper, but aspects of Burke & Hare as well. A gender switching storyline lends the film some relevance and Ralph Bates shines as Dr. Jekyll who not only battles with leading something of a normal existence, but also with suppressing the murderous tendencies of Hyde, his evil half, here played with sexual glee by Martine Beswick.
Former Bond girl and dinosaur savage, Martine Beswick chews the scenery in one of Hammer's better 70's efforts, DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE
Bates also met his wife, Virginia Wetherell, on the set of this film. Like much of Hammer's 70's horror output, the film performed poorly both in its native England and abroad prompting the once thriving motion picture company to scramble for ideas to keep things fresh and viable in a genre that was becoming progressively weary of their Gothic trappings and stories of vampires and mad scientists. Still, SISTER HYDE has a fascinating storyline and is bolstered by a fine score from the underused composer, David Whitaker.
17. TWINS OF EVIL (1971)
The third, final and best of Hammer's Karnstein trilogy was originally to have seen Peter Cushing as the evil Count Karnstein. Cushing did participate, some two months after his wife's death, but not as the vampiric villain. Instead, he plays the leader of a group of puritanical avengers that burn innocent girls suspected of witchery. The death of Cushing's wife no doubt aided him in his anguished, yet powerfully indomitable performance. He is brilliantly countered by a similarly strong performance by Damien Thomas as Count Karnstein.
Much was made of the inclusion of the Collinson twins, the first twins to grace the pages of Playboy magazine. The production is imbued with some richly dark atmosphere that would be largely absent from much of the studios horror efforts during the 1970's. The violence was also strong for this film which combines vampire lore with witchhunting shenanigans made popular by the release of the Vincent Price hit, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Harry Robinson delivers a grand, if occasionally militaristic score.
For a full review of TWINS OF EVIL, it can be found here--
18. VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971/released 1972)
Quite possibly Hammer's most ambitious horror production outside of their collaboration with Shaw Brothers the following year. This film has so many ideas and possibilities, there's enough to fill out several movies and the opening 12 minute prologue is a short film in and of itself. Director Robert Young has a keen eye for action and shoots vibrant clashes not seen in prior Hammer vampire pictures. These creatures of the night do more than simply strangle a victim or toss objects at them. Here, the vampires hold their own while taking on multiple opponents.
The level of gore and nudity is extremely high for a Hammer film. Even with all its good points, the film falls just shy of greatness given that it went over schedule and budget resulting in the production being stopped and the director had to cobble together the patches of footage and work with what he had. There are a number of instances where it is noticeable where additional sequences were to be placed and some others are edited in such a fashion as to mask any deficiencies. Nonetheless, VAMPIRE CIRCUS has so much action and horror to recommend it although those fans who long for the more mannered Gothic approach may be put off by the extreme violence. Easily one of the company's best during their dying days.
For a full review of VAMPIRE CIRCUS, it can be found here--
Peter Cushing does the kung fu in this colorful ghoul-ash from both Hammer and the mighty Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong
19. LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1973/released 1974)
One of two Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-productions. For a time, the sloppy action of CAPTAIN KRONOS got heaps of praise from fans and now, LEGEND is getting its due as fans are slowly coming around to its charms. The battle scenes are excellent and plentiful and even Peter Cushing gets in on the action as well. It has been rumored that Chang Cheh had directed the fight scenes, but this is mentioned nowhere in his memoirs, nor listed in his complete filmography.
The cauldron of blood--one of a number of elaborate sets designed by prolific Art Designer, Johnson Tsao
The world reknowned choreographer, Liu Chia Liang handled the action design and the film is a curious blend of Hammer vampire lore and Shaw Brothers kung fu action which was all the rage everywhere at the time. The film is something of a MAGNIFICENT SEVEN VS DRACULA as Van Helsing and a group of kung fu fighters save a village from vampires and skeletal ghouls who kill the males and kidnap the young girls for blood sacrifices.
Shaw Swordplay superstar David Chiang gets a chance to shine in an international production from the ambitious kung fu vampire hybrid, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES
Originally, this wasn't to be a Dracula film, but the Shaw's changed things abruptly and Lee had hardened his heart at this point as to being bribed back into the role. Racism towards the Chinese filmmakers permeated the set of the film and a few of the participants including Cushing and the lovely Julie Ege made the best of the situation. A sequel was announced, KALI, DEVIL BRIDE OF DRACULA, but never materialized. Highly recommended for action/horror and kung fu fans looking for something different.
The totally insane Baron Frankenstein has lost what little mind he had during the closing moments of the series swan song, FRANKENSTEIN & THE MONSTER FROM HELL
20. FRANKENSTEIN & THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1972/released 1974)
Terence Fisher returns for his Frankenstein swan song in this sorely cheap, yet enjoyable exploitation quickie. The writing was really on the wall by this point that the end was approaching. Still, Cushing's last hurrah as the embittered and determined Baron delivers in the grue department if nothing else. The story is pretty much the same only this time, the Baron is relegated to setting up shop within an insane asylum giving the scriptwriters a chance to go wild with the grand guinol trappings.
Bodybuilder and future Darth Vader, Dave Prowse plays with glass in his second role as a monster born from the mind of a mad scientist
David Prowse plays a literal monster this time out looking like a musclebound cave man covered in thick hair. Cushing is extremely gaunt in this film, yet he still manages to come to life during some of the more kinetic moments. The US version is missing some gore as well as a scene wherein the Baron ties a suture with his teeth. The Japanese LD is uncut, but is fullscreen only. The added footage doesn't amount to much, but it's nice to have it just the same. Serious Hammer fans will probably not find much of interest here, but exploitation hounds and Franky fans will get a jolt out of the ghoulish atmosphere.