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Friday Curled Up by the Fireplace (Comfort Zone, part 3)

And here we are again with another list of comics, books and movies as comfy as your favorite old slippers. First we did Westerns, then contemporary action stories… this week, since we just had Halloween, it’s all about horror.

As it happens, we had our friend Carla’s son Phenix with us over Halloween; she and her boyfriend had a couple of big costume parties they were going to attend downtown or something and she asked us if we minded babysitting. Of course we agreed instantly — the truth is that having five-year-old Phenix come and hang out with us really is as much a treat for Julie and me as it is a break for Carla.

A few months ago, Carla asked us to be Phenix’s godparents, which traditionally means we will take some responsibility for his education. So really, it was perfect that we had Phenix here over Halloween. Who else would explain to him about the wonder of Hammer Films?

This is an ESSENTIAL part of a boy's education.

So after the requisite trick-or-treating we prepared to induct our young godson into the joys of classic Hammer horror movies… at least, the ones that weren’t too extreme for a five-year-old boy.

Phenix was dubious at first. “Is it really scary?” he asked me about The Horror of Dracula.

Always start with the classics.

“Some,” I admitted. “But really these movies are more just adventures. They’re sort of scary but mostly they’re just exciting. Like …like when you listen to rock music really loud, or something like that. Or when you go on a ride on a roller coaster. It takes you up really high really fast, but then it lets you off safe at the end. You always know Van Helsing is going to get Dracula, so the good guys win, it’s not SCARY scary.”

“Even I like the Hammer ones, Phenix,” Julie assured him.

Thus reassured, Phenix settled in with me to watch the first of the Hammer Draculas, and he enjoyed it as much as I knew he would. Of course, it helped that I was there to explain it to him.

But the great pleasure of the old Hammers is that there’s not a lot of explaining necessary. Whether it’s Dracula or Frankenstein or even the Mummy or the Gorgon, these movies all had the same basic through-line. You’ve got your Dumbass Meddling With Things He Shouldn’t. Resulting in the unleashing of Supernatural Evil. Who’s menacing several Hot Girls.

Seriously, what's not to love there?

Eventually the evil gets to the Hot Girl We Actually Care About, whereupon our Noble Hero (occasionally with the aid of the Smart Older Guy) comes to the rescue and dispatches said evil.

hot Girls about to meet a Bad End. The only actor who ever made me believe Van Helsing was a badass, and never mind Hugh Jackman.

Always in ninety minutes or less. They really are amusement-park ride films.

Which is why, despite their being marketed originally as “Terrifying! Shock Follows Shock!” and so on in their initial release, the classic Hammer horror movies fit perfectly into what I think of as comfort-food entertainment. See, it’s not just that they’re favorites of mine.  No, the comfort-food part comes from the pleasure of the expected. When you know going in that there are certain things that are going to happen.

Now, if it’s done badly you hear sneering about things like cliché and formula. But if it’s done well… you get movies that may not be capital-A Art, but are nevertheless a great deal of fun, and the genre expectations are part of that fun. Hammer applied their formula to any number of classic (and some less-than-classic) efforts, as well as creating a virtual repertory company of actors — Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Thorley Walters — and as a result the studio became a brand-name in itself.

The only version of Phantom of the Opera I can manage to sit through, as it happens.

I really can’t think of any other movie studio that created a house style like that. You can’t say “a Sony film” or “a Warner’s film” or “an MGM film” and create an instant impression of what kind of movie it’s going to be — but you absolutely can say “like a Hammer film” and people who know movies immediately understand what you mean.

I’m a Batman guy and so my favorite Hammers tend to be the vampire ones, though we have many others here as well. Mostly, when I’m looking to unwind with a Hammer, I usually pick the ones that bend the formula without breaking it.

Probably my favorite is Dracula A.D. 1972.

Hammer gets hip!

Apart from its delightfully cornball plot about how 70s teenagers looking for “kicks” accidentally resurrect the Lord of the Undead, it’s easily my favorite performance by Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. He’s always smarter than everyone else in the movie, but in this one he’s also cooler than everyone else, even the hip mod London kids who are so contemptuous of The Establishment. Trailer here for those that are curious.

Another favorite of mine that tweaked the Dracula formula a bit is this odd mashup, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.

Dracula, Van Helsing, with value-added kung fu! How is this not MADE OF AWESOME??

The idea of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing teaming up with a group of young martial-arts masters to take down Dracula’s vampire legions is just completely irresistible to me. Hammer horror with value-added kung fu! What’s not to love about that? The trailer, here, should give you a little bit of an idea of how much fun this movie is.

The third one on my personal short-list of the Hammers I never get tired of is Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter.

If Dracula fought Errol Flynn it would end up kind of like this.

This is another genre mashup, this time with an old-school swashbuckler of the Errol Flynn style inserted into the Hammer horror template. It was written and directed by Brian Clemens, who gave us the classic Avengers with Steed and Mrs. Peel, so you already know it’s going to be smart, sexy fun. And with a young Caroline Munro as the requisite Hot Girl you really can’t miss. The trailer is here.

All of these are available on DVD for pretty cheap, and there are also several Hammer combo sets out there as well.

If Santa's reading this, you know, we haven't got this one yet... This one we DO have and it's terrific. These we own individually but otherwise I'd totally have glomped on to this.

All recommended. None of them are ever going to be hailed as Great Cinema, but you know, I come back to them a lot more often than I do other, classier horror movies.

And if you’ve got an imaginative young person around that you can enjoy them with, so much the better. Certainly this was the best Halloween we had here in a while, and I know Phenix and Julie and I had a much better time here at home, with Lee and Cushing and the House of Hammer, than Carla did at her overpriced bash downtown. (Seeing Phenix cheering, “He tricked Dracula into the sunshine and burnt him all up! That is SO AWESOME!” was even more fun than the movie itself — and the movie’s a hell of a lot of fun.)

*

You can find that same Hammer horror vibe in comics, though I don’t think you see it much in current comics. When I want to relax with the comic-book equivalent of a Hammer film I have to go to the archives.

No, not Tomb of Dracula or Swamp Thing or anything like that. Those are justly acknowledged as classics and I love them, but they don’t really count as ‘comfort-food’ entertainment. They’re a little too complex, too demanding of full attention.

You know, sometimes you don’t want a gourmet meal. Sometimes a bag of chips or a bowl of popcorn will do. And in those cases, for horror comics it’s gotta be the old magazine black-and-whites from Warren or Marvel.

Hammer horror on the comic-book page. These are a little too EC-influenced for me but the art was always a treat.

That’s about as close as you can get to that particular Hammer vibe in comic books. Monsters Unleashed, Creepy, Eerie, Dracula Lives!… any of them will do.

I tend to prefer the Marvel over the Warren, but that’s just my taste, I don’t think there’s any particular qualitative difference. My favorites are Marvel’s Vampire Tales, featuring Morbius, and Tales of the Zombie.

Where's my Essential Morbius, damn it? You know, there's always that one jerk relative that ruins it for everyone....

Tales of the Zombie has been collected in its entirety in a nice one-volume Essential, but you have to go to eBay or other online dealers for Vampire Tales.

Good stuff! Well, okay, not GOOD stuff, but FUN stuff.

I keep hoping Marvel’s got an Essential Morbius coming sooner or later — it’s about the only horror series left for them to reprint from that era. How about it, guys? If Brother Voodoo and The Living Mummy both rate, I think Morbius is overdue.

There’s even — sort of — a Hammer horror series of paperbacks out there.

I love these books. This is my favorite but I love them all.

Fred Saberhagen’s “New Dracula” series isn’t nearly as famous as his Berserker stories or his Book of Swords fantasies, but they are hands down my favorite thing he ever did. The gimmick is that he casts Dracula as the hero.

Any one of these is fun but I especially enjoy the contemporary ones. The Wold Newton factor always gets me, as well.

The first one, The Dracula Tape, is the original Bram Stoker story told from Vlad’s point of view. The amazing thing about it is that he doesn’t change any of the events of Stoker’s basic plot, but nevertheless manages to make Dracula look like the good guy. By contrast, Van Helsing comes off like a superstitious, bigoted old man.

Saberhagen followed that with The Holmes-Dracula File, An Old Friend of the Family, Thorn, Dominion, A Question of Time, A Matter of Taste, Seance For A Vampire, A Sharpness on the Neck and A Coldness In The Blood…. eleven in all. (Saberhagen also wrote the novelization of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1992 film, but I don’t count that one.)

All these books are tremendous fun, and Saberhagen managed to ring a number of clever twists on the vampire legend without sacrificing any of the essential ruthlessness of Dracula’s character. What’s more, you also can enjoy the added geekery of seeing Dracula meet Sherlock Holmes, Rasputin, Sigmund Freud, and other historical personages — something that always lights up my inner Wold Newton fanboy. There’s plenty of action and hot girls, as well, which is why I will forever associate this series of novels with the Hammer version of Dracula. (In my head I always picture Christopher Lee playing the part as I’m reading them.)

I’m afraid they’re all out of print, but they’re pretty easy to find online used. They’re just compulsively entertaining novels, and though I prefer the earlier ones, particularly An Old Friend of The Family and Thorn, they’re all worth checking out.

*

Once again I find I’ve rambled on rather longer than I meant to, so I’ll see you all back here next week as we wrap this series of columns up with some comfort-food choices in fantasy, SF, and superheroes.

18 Comments

I’m not much of a horror fan – I’m the squeamish sort, but I do like the Hammer horror films. Captain Kronos is my favorite, followed by the 7 Golden Vampires, and then comes Night Creatures. Don’t know if I’d ever classify them as comfort moves, but I really enjoy the look and story-telling style of them. I’d never really thought of combining kung fu and vampires, but it works and the whole frog thing in Kronos is just weirdly entertaining.

Drat! Now I’ll have to go looking for the Saberhagen books. Your columns are a menace to my wallet. ;)

Another great column. Looking forward to next week’s!

The Hammer films are, like, the one gigantic hole in my horror watching. Must rectify this.

I’m glad you were selective in which Hammer films to show young Phenix. I don’t think he’ll be ready for a few more years to see The Vampire Lovers.

I LOVE The Dracula Tape. Read it a long time ago and really enjoyed it. I like how just by twisting a few little things (like Van Helsing not taking blood types into account during the transfusions) it completely changes the whole story.

I agree with Penny: the real horror here is the damage done to household budgets by Greg’s columns – just kidding (sort of…)
Horror has always been my least favorite genre, especially in film – but this may have to do with the fact that by the mid- to late 70s when I was growing up, horror was really starting to become synonymous with spatter, gore and on-screen dismemberment. However, as far as comics go, from EC in the ’50s on to the DC, Marvel and Warren stuff of the ’70s, I like it for the most part (Essential Tales of the Zombie is on my want list, and I’ll add my vote to any calls for an Essential Morbius).
By the way, I’ve never read anything by Saberhagen, so I have to ask, is he responsible for turning Dracula, and vampires in general, into tragic heroes? That’s actually one thing that’s always bothered me about most more modern vampire stories (except in comics to a certain extent).

I had a special surprise this Halloween: A friend of mine Emailed me an audio file from an old Radio Show, a narration of the short story “Three Skeleton Key” by nobody less than VINCENT PRICE! I was kind of skeptical about how good it would be, especially now that I’m an adult ( I liked Price’s movies as a kid) but once I started listening, I was soon caught in its chilling reality. For those who don’t know, this story is about three lighthouse keepers who find… something… in a derelict ship. I don’t want to give the twist away, but let’s say it’s NOT your typical ghost story. It holds amazingly well even today. Recommended, if you can find it! :)

By the way, I’ve never read anything by Saberhagen, so I have to ask, is he responsible for turning Dracula, and vampires in general, into tragic heroes? That’s actually one thing that’s always bothered me about most more modern vampire stories (except in comics to a certain extent).

Absolutely not. I think you have Anne Rice and Lestat to blame for that. Although I suppose you can lay some of it off on Buffy’s Angel, as well.

But what I like about Saberhagen’s Dracula is that he’s the hero, but he’s still, well, Dracula. He occasionally reminisces about how, during his ‘breathing years,’ after a few well-timed public impalings Transylvania was a happy, orderly little place. That kind of thing. If I was going to draw any kind of comparison I’d say he comes off as about the same level of “good guy” as the Sub-Mariner… ill-tempered, hugely powerful, but with a sort of ragged nobility. And always a gentleman to the ladies… even the ones that are inconveniently married to someone else.

Hmmm, yeah, Anne Rice. Years ago, I could only get through about the first half-hour of “Interview with a Vampire.” I can’t say I liked “Underworld” much better, either. That whole Goth vampire-chic thing does nothing for me.
I suppose my favorite horror-type stuff would be stories by the likes of Ambrose Bierce and, of course, Lovecraft, with that chilling sense of looming, nameless terror they convey so well. But that’s not quite the ‘comfort-food’ entertanment we’re talking about here.
Also, I almost forgot to mention that your stories about Phenix always bring a smile to my face – it’s so cool that you’re initiating him into the ways of all things cool and geeky. You’re like a Jedi Master. And I now know I absolutely MUST see “Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.”

Richard Hope-Hawkins

November 7, 2009 at 8:29 am

Thank you for mentioning my late godfather Thorley Walters – Hammer and of course working for the Boulting Brothers he was a great friend and superb character actor – Richard

For me and most other fans who know the films, Mr. Walters is just as iconic a Hammer figure as Lee and Cushing. For what it’s worth, I can tell you that on all the commentaries I’ve heard on Hammer DVDs with Christopher Lee and the various actresses – Dracula Prince of Darkness in particular – they are always at some pains to talk about what a great guy Thorley Walters was. He was clearly a beloved figure at the studio.

I’m not a bg fan of vampires per se, as opposed to horror in general — I’m somewhat infamous in some circles for averaging watching probably 250 movies annually over the last 6 years (not having TV is a contributing factor, of course) without a single non-horror, -sf or -fantasy flick in the bunch, (yes, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET & IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE are most certainly fantasy), including some 200 zombie films.

Favorite Hammer flicks? I’m still waaaay behind in watching most of the studio’s landmark works, but the three Quatermass movies can’t be beat. PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES is awfully good as well.

Comfort-food horror movie? Maybe NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — my 3rd-favorite movie ever, period, behind only REDS & GRAPES OF WRATH. Though I do have a real soft spot for ’50s sf, many — most? — of which often crossed into horror territory. THEM, come on down!

(My lack of enthusiasm for vampires notwithstanding, I feel compelled to note that my first LOC in a comic appeared in TOMB OF DRACULA #38, btw.)

I’ve only seen a few Hammer films. I did see Horror of Dracula, and it was all right. I was a little disappointed that Dracula was hardly in the movie, but I guess that’s not too different fromt he original book. (That’s one of very few details about this movie that matches the book.) I also saw the first Hammer Frankenstein and some movie with Peter Cushing fighting silicon creatures that escaped from a lab on some island.

Saberhagen may very well be a good writer, but I find it sickening that there would even be a novelisation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Couldn’t they just release a new printing of Stoker’s book? (Maybe with pictures from the movie or something.) Sure, they did make some changes to the story, but they followed it closer than any other film I know of, and it wouldn’t be any more different from the film than some novelisations have been.

I also saw … some movie with Peter Cushing fighting silicon creatures that escaped from a lab on some island.

That’s not actually a Hammer, though there’s a fair amount of talent overlap. It was called Island of Terror and did indeed star Peter Cushing, but it was made by another British B-picture outfit called Planet Studios. Directed by Terence Fisher, who did a lot of Hammers, so it stands to reason it would have that same feel.

I only have this information so readily to hand because my old friend Joe mentioned that same film to me this morning and wanted to know if it was a Hammer. I was sure it wasn’t but looked it up anyway and was surprised to see how many Hammer people had worked on it.

I find it sickening that there would even be a novelisation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Couldn’t they just release a new printing of Stoker’s book? (Maybe with pictures from the movie or something.) Sure, they did make some changes to the story, but they followed it closer than any other film I know of, and it wouldn’t be any more different from the film than some novelisations have been.

Well, really the closest one ever done to Stoker is, for my money, the BBC version with Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay. I actually read the novel Saberhagen did based on the 1992 movie, and didn’t care for it — but mostly because I didn’t really care for the movie, either. I had hoped he would sneak in bits of his own Drac mythology in there, but it was just a standard workmanlike novelization job. It did strike me as humorous that there was enough difference from the original in a screenplay called Bram Stoker’s Dracula that you could even DO a novelization of that screenplay.

I think it would be really nice if you did a column on “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo.”

Greg,
Great column! I always learn something new from your column =) For those interested in Hammer there is a superb doco called: Flesh & Blood

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 8, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Remember, wait till your god-son’s a teen before putting on The Vampire Lovers.

It’s not right for a child, but for a teenage boy, it’d be everything he’s ever wanted in a film.

[…] part one, part two, and part three. I really had intended, when I first outlined this, to keep it to one or at most two columns. What […]

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