Last year the Hammer horror name made a welcome return with The Woman In Black and now there are three new Blu-ray releases of Hammer classics, The Devil Rides Out, The Mummy’s Shroud and Rasputin The Mad Monk.

Back in my teenage years, when there were only four channels of TV to watch in the UK, these were the kind of films that would turn up on BBC2 or Channel4 late on a Saturday evening at what was colloquially known as pub-chucking-out-time so I’ve sat through many of them before though my original recollections of them, while fond, may be understandably hazy.

*****

Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966) is Hammer’s take on the life of Rasputin with Christopher Lee as the wild-eyed monk of the title. The quality of the Blu-ray conversion is fabulous and I’d have to guess that this is the closest experience you’ll get to seeing its original cinematic release other than being closely acquainted with Marty McFly. Lee looms over the film with a commanding presence and makes for an impressive Rasputin but the focus of the film is less on any attempt at historical accuracy and more on conveying certain mix of the Rasputin fact, myth and legend in a very enjoyable Hammer way.

By modern standards the film is fairly slow burning and is sparing with the gore but the mainly achieves its feeling of suspense through the progression of Rasputin to small-town monk to Royal confidante because of the hypnotic power that he wields over certain key individuals. The feeling of complete helplessness in the face of a malevolent force has often been explored in horror but is nicely done here as it’s well executed and ties in well to the key dramatic scenes. In the end though his megalomania manages to alienate Boris, the struck-off alcoholic doctor who had become his closest ally, and he assists Rasputin’s enemies in organising his assassination. For me  the key to the film is Lee’s wild eyed and shaggy haired performance as Rasputin and the rating below reflects that.

[Rating:3.5/5]

Extras
The extras are superb and not only cover the making of the film but also debunk the myths surrounding Rasputin. Probably my favourite mini-fact from “Tall Stories – The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk” was that the exterior of the inn set at the beginning of the film was a left over from Dracula Prince of Darkness, which had finished filming in the same location the previous week with many of the same cast. Another special feature is the 2.55:1 ratio release which the film was made in but never screened in. Amusingly there’s also an old film about costume dramas voiced by Oliver Reed which includes what he fabulously confesses to be “what I consider to be my worst film”, The Brigand of Kandahar.

[Rating:3.5/5]

For a full list of contents see the Amazon listing

*****

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) doesn’t have as big a star in it as Christoper Lee and is the third of Hammer’s four Mummy films. Fairly predictably a group of Egyptologists find the tomb of young Pharaoh, Kah-To-Bey, and having ignored a local’s warning not to tamper with the tomb they remove the body and set in motion a sequence of disastrous consequences, which takes an even worse turn when the same local revives the Mummy of the boy-Pharoah’s servant by chanting the incantation that was written on the Mummy’s Shroud of the title. Murderous carnage ensues as the party are slain by the vengeful Mummy under the instruction of  the malevolent local both are finally killed off in a tense finale which does something to redeem the film.

As far as the production goes it does look horribly like some significant sequences were filmed in a sand-filled quarry in the Home Counties and if I’m honest I found the whole thing difficult to sit through at points but it’s not the worst mummy film I’ve ever seen, though it’s some way from the best. While the Blu-ray conversion is, as with the others, fabulously clear the quality of the acting hasn’t aged well with a particularly odd turn from “Mad Crystal Ball Woman” (Catherine Lacey) and there are niggling inconsistencies such as how a long dead Egyptian mummy could tell that a particular bottle on a shelf contains hydrofluoric acid which added to the list of things that bugged me.

[Rating:1.5/5]

Extras

The extras reveal how Hammer began making Mummy films when Universal opened up its back catalogue and gives some background into the Egypt of the time together with its setting in the context of the archaeological expeditions of the 1920s. Additionally it notes how the Mummy films had gone from being a big budget Hammer feature down to being echoes of their original splendour in this prototype stalker/slasher film with little budget and turned out to be the last film made at Bray Studios.

[Rating:2.5/5]

For a full list of contents see the Amazon listing

*****

In The Devil Rides Out Christopher Lee unusually stars as the hero rather than villain by taking on the role of the Duc de Richleau who confronts his old friend and black aspiring magic convert Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) who has fallen under the dark influence of arch-villain Mocata (the superbly ominous Charles Gray who shortly afterwards played James Bond’s adversary Blofeld). The Duc’s attempts to rescue his friend are soon thwarted and together with the slightly hapless Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene whose voice was redubbed in the film and who looks at times like a prototype Colin Firth) he is forced to confront the dark forces that want to take his friend.

The action escalates with orgiastic gatherings of dark disciples and ever more powerful dark powers unleashed with appearances from the Goat of Mendes and the Angel of Death on horseback in Mocata’s attempts to extend his dark kingdom. Just when it seems like they might be out of the woods having resisted the attacks from those powers the situation becomes even more desperate with the kidnap of a friend’s child and the method of Mocata’s demise is as superb as it is unexpected.

Much of Dennis Wheatley’s original book had to be left out in the quest for a manageable screenplay that would get past the censors of the day so gone are the Nazi references and esoteric discussions of astral planes and instead the the script is streamlined to its more manageable on-screen level.

From the outset the Blu-ray conversion looks lovely and I was really impressed with the level of definition that they had managed to bring out and while it retains the colours you’d expect for a film of that period they’re clear and sharp. Where it is weak though is in the special effects and for me the in-car sections of the car chase scenes are the most immediately noticeable together with the awful ‘giant’ spider later one, although that is a legacy of some of the budgetary wranglings that it took to get the film to the screen. The problems they had trying to get the winged horseman effect working are well recorded and it’s the Blu-ray conversion’s attempts to clean-up and improve on effects such as those which has drawn the ire of the long-time fans of the film.

As is becoming almost traditional with Blu-ray releases of existing films the long-term fans of the film have complained that it should have been cleaned up but not altered as to do so is sacrilege. Whilst I might agree with that argument when it applies to Star Wars and other huge box office successes which could almost be argued to be part of the public consciousness I’d say that the counter argument, which is that it helps update the film to make it appeal to a wider audience, is a genuine one in this case as the state of the special effects here was such that they did need some help.

Of the three films reviewed this one is definitely my favourite not just for Christopher Lee’s acting but the way that the film manages to mix the middle-class England of the time with the darkly supernatural in such a natural way. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the film and I think this high-definition resurrection is fabulous, in spite of the limitations mentioned above, so I hope it does well.

[Rating:4/5]

Extras

The extras feature a series of interviews outlining Hammer’s move from its key monster movies into a new arena, namely black magic. They explain how the 1960’s with the emergence of rock music and its various derivations led to a reprinting of Dennis Wheatley’s books and it was on these that Hammer decided to focus on, although they were also very aware of the sensibilities of the religious community at the time. In the section dealing with the digital conversion it does address the issue of the special effects with the children of the special effects supervisor For the devotees amongst you they worked from the original negatives scanned into 4k with around 1.5 million individual fixes made and the details provided of how it was done may be fascinating to anyone who has an interest in post-production work.

[Rating:4/5]

For a full list of contents see the Amazon listing

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I'm a music-lover, frequent photographer and occasional musician as well as being a fan of all kinds of films, including many with subtitles and some of the more 'cult' movies (Dark Star anyone?). Since joining HeyUGuys I've met lots of wonderful and fascinating people who work in front and behind the cameras and having moved on from writing and reviewing I've spent the last five years crewing the camera on the red carpet for premieres and such.