Hammer Films: Icons of Suspense Collection: DVD review

The last few years have seen a wave of high-quality releases of classic Hammer films at low price. Hammer fans have been spoiled with horrors such as The Gorgon , The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll , Night Creatures and The Phantom of the Opera on DVD at last.

The studio is, of course, best-known for the Hammer horror films, those Gothic horrors made between 1957 and 1976 and featuring all manner of movie monsters, from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Mummy and the Hound of the Baskervilles. The company had a surprisingly prolific output of non-horror films, however, and Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films gathers six of these together in a single budget collection.

The set comes with no extras, save for a few trailers, but with a recommended retail price of less than $25, that hardly matters.

Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)

This thriller was directed by Val Guest, who claims The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and The Abominable Snowman (1957) among his Hammer credits. The story concerns a racing driver (Ronald Lewis, who also starred in Hammer's noirish suspense thriller Scream of Fear) suffering from an overwhelming urge to strangle his wife (Diane Cilento), following a driving accident that ends his career. While holidaying in France, into their lives comes a doctor (Claude Dauphin) claiming he can cure his disorder. But is the doctor all he seems? The film errs on the talky side, a common problem in some of Hammer's lesser thrillers, but the director does a good job of building tension.

The film was called The Full Treatment on its initial UK release.

Cash on Demand (1961)

Cash on Demand is a rarely seen but delicately crafted thriller, with a simple story told well by a trio of actors in the main roles: Hammer regulars Peter Cushing and Andre Morell, with Richard Vernon. True, there's not a great deal of action, and the film revolves around a single location, but this appears to pose no obstacle to director Quentin Lawrence. The suspense is palpable as Scrooge-like bank manager Cushing gets a festive surprise in the form of sophisticated villain Morell, whose ingenious plan to get away with robbery has the audience on the edge of their seats.

The Snorkel (1958)

You could say The Snorkel is an early example of a "high-concept" thriller. In this classic "locked room" mystery, a killer uses the apparatus of the title to get away with murder. We find this out right at the start, so no spoilers there. The suspense comes in as teenager Mandy Miller -- who as a child star had appeared in the Ealing films The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Mandy (1952) -- investigates her mother's death and can't shake off the feeling that her stepfather was involved. Though the title has been ridiculed, the idea works well and leads to a gripping ending.

Maniac (1963)

There's no denying this is one of the weaker films in the set, but it's not all bad. Kerwin Mathews plays an American on vacation in France. He settles into a guest house where he becomes entangled in the lives of a mother, her daughter and the incarcerated madman of the title. The proceedings are livened up by a frenetic jazz score from Stanley Black.

Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1959)

Known in the UK as Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, this film offers an astonishingly candid look at child sexual molestation. Janina Faye stars as a young girl whose parents have just moved to a Canadian small town. She falls prey to an elderly pedophile, whose wealthy and highly regarded family blocks every attempt at justice. As the predatory Clarence Olderberry, Felix Aylmer is perhaps one of Hammer's truest and most memorable monsters. While much of the film is fairly straightforward drama -- it was based on a stage play -- there are one or two hard-to-forget moments that will haunt viewers afterwards.

These Are the Damned (1961)

The American director Joseph Losey came to England to shoot this science-fiction thriller, known as simply The Damned in the UK. Losey's realist roots show through; the first third of the film is shot (excellently, by the way) mostly on location in the southern coastal towns of Weymouth and Portland Bill, in southern England, and it's more social drama than science-fiction. In that respect, it offers a fascinating glimpse of late-'50s/early '60s Britain. As the film goes on, however, it evolves into a provocative apocalyptic fantasy, with chilling undertones. The basic premise is that a group of children are being held captive to survive and repopulate the Earth in the event of a supposedly inevitable nuclear holocaust. The main characters, all of whom are likewise "Damned," each in his own way, become inadvertently caught up in the scenario. A bonus is an early star performance by Oliver Reed.

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