4/05/2010

DVD Review: The Icons of Suspense Collection Presents Hammer Films



Now Available to Own



Photo Slideshow





Titles Included: Stop Me Before I Kill! (aka The Full Treatment) (1960); Cash on Demand (1961); The Snorkel (1958); Maniac (1963); Never Take Candy From a Stranger (aka Never Take Sweets From a Stranger) (1960); These Are the Damned (The Damned) (1963)

Monsters may have made Hammer Films famous but this time around madness, murder and the macabre are all on display in six titles from the late '50s and early 1960s never before released on DVD.

Packaged under one regular cover with all three discs stacked on top of one another – marking this the first time I've seen a set presented as a mini DVD spindle – there's plenty to interest fans of British B-movies in the collection, that on the whole adheres much more to the promise of suspense and thrills than Sony's previous Columbia Pictures vault releases Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 1 and 2 and the oddly named Martini Movies series.

With so many twists that O. Henry would've set down his pen in a few cases to see how it all turns out, the set covers everything from ED that presents itself as the urge to strangle, bank robbery, bikers who run into some Damned children, Psycho meets The Postman Always Rings Twice in Paris, an elderly child molester and a Hitchcockian murderous stepfather.



In fact, although the description of Hitchcockian is as overused as the term overrated or B-movie for that matter, considering that the films were made during a rather prolific era for Hitch, it's safe to cite the director along with a few key others as a major influence on-- if not the final result-- than at least the intention of several of the films included in the set.

While the tone changes throughout, These Are the Damned aka The Damned feels a bit like the odd movie out. Morphing from a tense biker gang urban picture that in America would've been the type of thing to which Warner Brothers would've gravitated, Damned flips some invisible switch and tries to incorporate some of the Cold War/Space Race paranoia and sense of apocalyptic doom. However, all things Damned aside, overall, the movies do all incur suspense whether it's genuine fright or simply suspension of disbelief.

Gorgeous remastered in crisp black and white, The Full Treatment or as it's foolishly renamed here in a way that tells the entire story in a silly sentence -- Stop Me Before I Kill! -- journeys through the tentative psychological recovery of a race car driver whom, along with his new bride, were involved in a fatal crash when a truck came hurtling toward them on an open road.

Following a lengthy recovery, the newlyweds honeymoon in France where they come across some old friends and new ones in the form of fellow racers and a mysterious psychiatrist but quickly discover that the honeymoon is over before it's even begun as instead of making love, the convalescing racer has a stronger urge to choke his beautiful, endlessly patient bride to death in moments of impending passion.

Unwilling to leave him even if it could cost her her life, as the sister of a deceased racer who perished in a horrific smash up, our heroine knows the rough terrain the men travel but thanks to the mysterious stranger, she's at least able to get him into therapy and back on the road to what she hopes will be recovery.



A slightly more perverse version of Spellbound that runs out of gas about midway through despite a turn filled road near the end that leads us in an unexpected direction, Stop Me Before I Kill! certainly looks great visually speaking but the narrative needed to be much tighter if this production wanted to truly hammer home the thrills.

Moving from racing season in France to Christmas in Scrooge territory, we're treated to the bank robbery holiday chiller Cash on Demand which finds the family of a local Bah-humbug bank manager held hostage and threatened with gruesome death on the phone unless our less than likable lead assists a smiling villain to the monetary contents of the vault.



Heightened by its near-real time approach, despite the fact that you start to get an inkling as to how it will conclude sooner than you did in Stop than Cash on Demand, this puzzler with a twist is vastly superior filmmaking bolstered by its brisk pace, clear-cut through-line and unwavering direction as a bank heist movie without the wanderings of some of Hammer Films' other works.

Returning to thoroughly twisted territory with the all-in-the-family serial killer Shadow of a Doubt styled work The Snorkel, a young woman can't find a single soul to believe her suspicions that her own sinister, smiling stepfather is truly a cold-blooded murderer after the family fortune, knocking off anyone who stands in his way with a bizarre method of gas and a snorkel.

Taut and incredibly horrifying just from the premise alone, I had great hopes in The Snorkel due to its unapologetically goosebump raising beginning from Oscar winning cinematographer Guy Green.

Yet unfortunately, it grows repetitive and as annoying as watching an aquarium instead of exploring the sea for yourself as our young female finger pointer is made to act half her age as she shouts accusations with considerable merit in front of police and adults but irritatingly everyone shakes them off as child's play in a major swim away from the ocean of logic and good sense.



And although it wouldn't have nearly the same level of impact without witnessing the events with our own eyes in the beginning, had the movie been able to offer some sense of disbelief about the villain or give us at least one other twist, it would've made the waters far more welcome for much more satisfying viewing.

Still even though a menacing character warns, “you needn't watch if it upsets you,” you'll certainly want to watch Maniac, which is not only the best film in the entire set but I'm amazed why Sony has waited so long to pull this wild card out of its deck since it's sure to get a cult following among fans of Film Noir.

Despite the fact that self-proclaimed recent girlfriend dumper American artist Geoff Farrell describes himself as “a misogynist” to a local police officer, he certainly turns out to be quite the ladies man in this one, caught between a frisky French stepmother whose husband is locked away at the madhouse and her beautiful, innocent daughter Annette. Uncertain with men after being assaulted four years earlier, Annette and her stepmother run a cafe and hotel in a work that calls to mind Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Psycho.

Although initially Geoff's attentions fall towards Annette, it's her stepmother who proves far more tenacious and forward, seducing Geoff on a beach no less before she cooks up a little scheme to post a jailbreak and let her ex find his own happiness too... away from the mental asylum.



Dropping more clues into your lap than breadcrumbs from one of the women's dinners cooked up in the restaurant, Maniac is one of the few that's so intellectually stirring it's best devoured alone where you can see if you'll figure out the recipe for mayhem long before our main characters do.

Although mild by today's standards of Happiness and Mysterious Skin, the eerily renamed Never Take Candy from a Stranger, nonetheless startles you as soon as it opens when you discover that the young daughter of new arrivals in Canada has been paid in sweets by a dirty old peeping Tom for a nude dance.



Initially torn about whether or not to go to the police, once the parents comprised of a loving housewife and the new school principal realize that their daughter isn't the first victim of the lecherous man, they go to the police and bring the case to trial, regardless of the threats that because the elderly senile villain is the wealthiest gentleman and benefactor in town, it's not worth causing the trouble when his grown son is determined to get revenge on the accusers.

Although the subject matter is hardly appealing and the final sequence is far too rushed, given the age of the film and the wise decision to imply terror with light and shadow in black and white, the movie works better than Stop in terms of just enough psychological terror without throwing a curveball out of nowhere or revealing the entire hand right from the start as in the case of Snorkel.



Given the ties of money and power as the other side of the balance of power between the truth making Candy still timely in the wake of the Catholic Church scandals of hypocrisy run amok, it's a chilling movie that definitely plays on our emotions and manipulates them freely but nonetheless is grounded in a solid basis of relatable truth.

However, grounded is the last thing that the peculiar oddity These Are the Damned could be classified as since the cult classic begins like a traditional Rebel Without a Cause or Wild One motorcycle gang movie about teens who target tourists in England before suddenly it goes science fiction-lite on us in a strange genre splice that never quite works.



Overall feeling like two different movies, although the quality in the direction is there and sure enough the screenplay is so weird that you find yourself invested just to see where on Earth it could possibly go next, The Damned doesn't thrill for quite the same reasons as the rest of the works, relying on gimmick rather than a cohesive structure.

Still despite this, even with a few misfires, these six titles prove that Hammer can still lure you into menacing danger with or without the monster makeup, provided we're given the right Maniac for the job.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.