Hammer House of Horror is the best-known of the legendary studio’s forays onto TV, being preceded by the spooky (and long overdue on DVD) late-60s anthology series Journey to the Unknown and succeeded soon after by the middling long-form effort Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. Produced in partnership with ITC Entertainment in 1980, its 13-episode run on ITV was a pretty big deal at the time, particularly if you were a kid allowed to stay up and watch it. Crewed by many of the same team from Hammer’s cinema era (recently fizzled-out with 1979’s The Lady Vanishes) and featuring an excellent rotation of familiar acting faces, its contemporary-set stories of demonic possession, nasty scientists, spooky hauntings and cannibal children offered a gore-smeared window on the direction Hammer might have taken had it continued on through the Eighties.
The good news is that the series holds up remarkably well; each 50-minute, 35-millimetre film is an ideal late-night treat - preferably with a strong drink to hand. And some Stilton perhaps, because Hammer House of Horror is never less than quality cheese. First episode ‘The Witching Time’ is a case to point that distils many of the elements the series is fondly remembered for. Starring the always-excellent Jon Finch, 1980s sex kitten Prunella Gee (now an addictions psychotherapist, by the way) and the legendary Patricia Quinn as a time-travelling sex-witch, it starts with a nicely-lit shot of Prunella’s naked rear and progresses through the decidedly fruity tale of how Quinn (also naked most of the time, naturally) appears from the past to seduce Finchy and drive him insane while Prunella runs around in a pair of knickers trying to stop her. Along the way we get the series’ signature party piece: loads of blood gouting out of pipes, taps and other everyday objects. Proper, thick Hammer blood, too, not that weak Ribena stuff that Kubrick pumped out of those lifts in The Shining.
Highlights of the run include the rightfully-celebrated ‘Silent Scream’ which stars an alarmingly young Brian Cox as an ex-con who gets trapped in scientist Peter Cushing’s fiendish experiment; ‘Children of the Full Moon’, with Diana Dors memorably caring for a blood-thirsty young brood (“they like their little bit of meat!”) and ‘The House That Bled to Death’, which is one long excuse to show blood spurting from pipes and taps. Its kiddies’ party scene is a grotesque humdinger of horror the likes of which UK telly producers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole these days, the beard-combing, craft beer-supping snowflakes.
The episodes have all been beautifully restored but extras are rather thin on the ground by Network’s usual standards – some raw footage, adverts stings and a wide-screen version of one episode. A proper retrospective documentary would have been nice to have, but no matter, the show’s the thing.
Hammer House of Horror is a delightfully lurid guilty pleasure from an era when gratuitous nudity, over-ripe melodrama and bloody horror was a great recipe for Saturday night entertainment. Still is, round these parts.
HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: PETER CUSHING, DENHOLM ELLIOTT, DIANA DORS, BRIAN COX / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW