Don’t make a sound or turn around!
Though I’m a lifetime fan of horror (some could even call me obsessed) Hammer movies have long been one of my blind spots. I’ve seen many of the titles for which the British company became famous in the ‘50s and ‘60s — many of them re-tellings of the iconic characters made famous by Universal 20 years earlier, only this time in full color and with more blood and sexuality — but have missed most of the B-grade efforts and less popular films Hammer was putting out during the same period. Thankfully, Hammer horror has been finding a new life on Blu-ray in recent months, first with multi-film boxed sets coming from Warner Bros. and Universal and now with a pair of double feature Blu-rays from Mill Creek Entertainment.
The first of these double feature discs I checked out collects The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, Hammer’s 1960 reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, and 1964’s The Gorgon, two of the more obscure titles made during Hammer’s strongest period despite both being based on classic source material. Though neither achieves the heights of some of the best Hammer horror I have seen, both offer their own spins on the genre — one more successfully than the other — and are worth seeing for that alone.
By now you know the story of Jekyll and Hyde: Dr. Henry Jekyll (Paul Massie), trying to explore the human mind, conducts experiments on himself in which the aristocratic scientist is transformed into Mr. Hyde, a manifestation of Jekyll’s id. The major change in Hammer’s version is that, unlike the previous incarnations played by John Barrymore, Frederic March and Spencer Tracy, Massie’s Hyde is even more handsome and suave than his Jekyll — rather than becoming the repellent beast of other versions, this Hyde is more like The Nutty Professor’s Buddy Love. He’s still a rapist and a murderer, but actually appears more hirsute and unpolished in his Jekyll form. The change distinguishes the Hammer version somewhat in that it turns Hyde into a gentleman monster — an exploration of what a man is able to get away with when he is charming and attractive. At the same time, it makes the character less satisfying from a horror movie standpoint. One of the joys of watching old monster movies like this is to see monsters. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll comes up short in that department.
But because it’s directed by Terence Fisher, the journeyman filmmaker responsible for a number of Hammer’s best productions (including Horror of Dracula, Revenge of Frankenstein and Curse of the Werewolf) and their go-to director for the last 20 years of his career, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll is beautifully photographed and put together with skill. Yes, it’s a fairly dull take on the famous story, made all the more disappointing because Hammer’s original mission statement seemed to be that they would remake classic horror properties but this time show things that previous adaptations couldn’t. But it’s still a classy production and totally watchable. It’s a far cry from the silent John Barrymore version or the 1932 adaptation starring Frederic March (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar), still the best of the Jekyll & Hyde movies, but at least it’s better than that one where Tim Daly turns into Sean Young. Take the wins where you can get them.
Four years and six movies later, Fisher directed The Gorgon for Hammer. Turning to Greek mythology instead of the classic canon of movie monsters, The Gorgon casts Hammer regulars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (reunited with Fisher for the first time since The Mummy) as possible adversaries on opposite sides of a murder investigation in which people are mysteriously being turned to stone. Anyone with even a distant memory of seeing Clash of the Titans as a kid can probably figure out what’s going on here.
Though it sags in the middle, The Gorgon is a much stronger film than The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Not only does it reunite Cushing and Lee but also bursts with gothic atmosphere and boasts a cool monster. The first and final acts are really good, probably because that’s where all the horror stuff is (the middle act is a lot of dialogue and exposition that’s fine but definitely on the dry side). If nothing else, the movie deserves points for bringing a monster to the screen that, while not necessarily “original” (because Greek mythology), is at least rarely used in horror movies. It feels fresh and new even when it technically isn’t.
Mill Creek’s double feature Blu-ray presents both The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and The Gorgon in their original aspect ratios (2.35:1 widescreen for Jekyll, 1.78:1 for The Gorgon) in 1080p HD transfers that are spotty and, unfortunately, consistent with the company’s budget approach to home video releasing — yes, their titles are cheap, but they often look it. Colors are muted and fine detail is often lacking, replaced with a hazy softness that renders the movies watchable but hardly eye-popping. Both films come with lossy stereo audio tracks that offer passable dialogue presentations but which muddy up the music and sound effects somewhat. There are no bonus features included.
If, like me, you’re looking to expand your Hammer horror horizons on a budget, you could do worse than Mill Creek’s double feature of The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and The Gorgon. Both movies are decent at best and their presentations somewhat less than we’ve come to expect from the Blu-ray format, but it’s nice to be able to add the titles to your collection if you’re a completist, especially fairly inexpensively.