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?
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.