‘Hammer Horror’ Brings Four Gothic Tales Home on Blu-ray

Countess Dracula, Hands of the Ripper, Twins of Evil, and Vampire Circus -- all in one slickly produced box set!
Hammer Horror Box

Imprint has quickly made a name for themselves as quality label out of Australia. Part of the ViaVision family, the label continues to deliver an eclectic selection of titles on Blu-ray including several U.S. titles that have/had yet to see a release stateside. Numbered spines and slickly uniform packaging are catnip for physical media collectors, and the on-disc contents are every bit as solid. Their latest release is a box-set collecting four films from Hammer’s early 70s period — two of which made our list of the 10 best Hammer horror films! — so keep reading for our review of Hammer Horror: Four Gothic Horror Films.

Countess Dracula (1971)

A death leads a bitter widow to resent her daughter — her husband’s will dictates the two split his estate — but a bloody discovery offers a chance for the countess to secure the fortune for herself. Countess Elizabeth realizes that the blood of young women makes her own aging skin return to youthful vibrance, and the more blood she rubs on her skin in the younger she stays. Good thing the castle is stocked with a dozen or so nubile maids.

The oft-told legend of the real-life Countess of Bathory gets the Hammer treatment here with Ingrid Pitt in the title role, and all of the expected beats are here. She’s a mean old biddy, and once she discovers the secret she begins cutting a bloody path through the young women. While not overly gory, the film delivers some spurting blood and pronounced busoms, and as the countess’ actions and lies add up she heads towards an inevitable end. Horrifying elements aside, it’s as much a drama as it is a genre effort, and both Pitt and Nigel Green (as her right hand man) make for a compellingly antagonistic pair.

Imprint’s new Blu-ray captures the atmosphere and Gothic production design well, and it features a stills gallery, a trailer, a special trailer from its showing as a double feature with Vampire Circus, and the following extras:

  • Commentary by Ingrid Pitt, Kim Newman, and Stephen Jones
  • Commentary by Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, writer Jeremy Paul, and author Jonathan Sothcott
  • *NEW* Commentary by Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • *NEW* Vampire Lover: The Life and Career of Ingrid Pitt [23:34] – A fantastic visual essay on the legendary star from Kat Ellinger
  • *NEW* Blood Countess: Bathory on Film [] – An informative visual essay from Kat Ellinger
  • Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt [10:47] –
  • Archival interview with Ingrid Pitt [6:50]
  • *NEW* Interview with actor Leon Lissek [2:50]
  • Interview with director Peter Sasdy [21:12]
  • *NEW* Interview with writer Gabriel Ronay [12:27]

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

Jack the Ripper is dead, long live Jack the Ripper! Wait, that can’t be right, except it kind of is as a new series of vicious murders begins plaguing London. A psychoanalyst suspects he knows who the culprit is, but who could believe a young blonde woman capable of such brutal acts? Maybe if they knew she watched as a child while the Ripper killed her mother… and that the Ripper was her father?

Hammer’s efforts to step away from their bread and butter characters and stars weren’t always successful, but this mean little thriller has its charms. Angharad Rees gives a compelling performance as the young woman, and her shifts from catatonia to kindness to pure savagery make for an engaging bit of whiplash. The film does takes some effects shortcuts at times that stand out, especially in HD, including a shot of a doll falling to a miniature floor, but we also get lush cinematography and lots of blood. The key element driving the film forward is that its antagonist is herself a victim of sorts, but there may be no way to stop the killings and save her as well.

The disc includes trailers, still galleries, and the following:

  • Commentary by Angharad Rees and critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
  • *NEW* Commentary by Hammer historians Jonathan Rigsby and Kevin Lyons
  • The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by the Hands of the Ripper [28:22] – A look at the film’s production and place in Hammer history by way of interviews with experts, critics, and others
  • *NEW* Fresh Blood [23:41] – An interview with Peter Sasdy
  • U.S. television introduction [7:07] – An audio introduction (video elements were lost in a fire at Universal) that was used to bookend the film when it was severely cut for television

Twins of Evil (1971)

Twin terrors roam the countryside — one is a hardcore Christian doing the Lord’s work by burning sexy young women at the stake, and the other is a Count with a taste for blood and Satanism. Things worsen when the Count becomes a vampire, and the arrival of the Christian’s buxom twin nieces only amplifies the chaos and carnage. One twin falls prey to the Count’s bite, and it might just seal the entire village’s fate.

Hammer was never a studio that shied away from sexuality, as evidenced by their habit of showcasing heaving bosoms and ample cleavage, and this film feels like one designed with that in mind. Real-life Playboy twins play the leads, and it’s their purity that becomes the focus. That sauciness is balanced nicely by a stern Peter Cushing as the puritanical prick. It’s not held in the highest regard, but I remain a fan of its jabs at the hypocrisy of the faithful and its steady supply of R-rated carnage.

Imprint’s disc once again looks good and includes trailers, a still gallery, and the following:

  • Commentary by critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
  • *NEW* Commentary by Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil [1:29:12] – Director’s cut of the documentary looking at Hammer’s embrace of exploitative nudity and sex
  • *NEW* Satanic Decadence and the Legacy of Sheridan Le Fanu in Hammer’s Twins of Evil [20:34] – A visual essay by Kat Ellinger
  • The Props That Hammer Built: The Kinsey Collection [23:29] – A look at one man’s collection of props rescued from Hammer history
  • Interview with director John Hough [21:45]
  • Interview with Damien Thomas [49:12]
  • Super-8 version of the film [9:41]
  • Deleted scene [1:09]

Vampire Circus (1972)

A small village lives in the shadow of a mysterious count with a flagrant disregard for societal norms and a habit of turning the men into cucks by boning their wives. One man’s had enough and leads a party to fight back leaving the count dead — but not before he curses them all — and years later that curse comes to fruition with the arrival of a circus troupe. Like the count, they’re vampires too, and they’re here to slaughter dudes, suck women and children, and resurrect their fellow vamp.

As prime period Hammer efforts go, this one isn’t nearly as beloved as many others — but I love it. It lacks a big name and maybe feels smaller than some others, but it’s on point with its R-rated antics. Bloody demises, surprising nudity, and a general naughtiness pervades the screen, and it amounts to some truly visceral thrills. Some optical/animated effects are obviously dated, but the gory beats land with bright red blood and composer David Whitaker’s bombast. Director Robert Young embraces the grittier, meaner elements of the vampire tales, and he does good work pairing the gothic elements with some wilder visuals and sequences.

Imprint’s new disc looks bright despite the nighttime setting, and it makes the colors pop. It’s loaded with extras too including a trailer, image gallery, motion comic, and the following:

  • Commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
  • *NEW* Commentary by Hammer historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
  • The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus [32:39] – A fantastic look at the film’s production featuring interviews with Joe Dante, Tim Lucas, and others
  • Gallery of Grotesqueries: A Brief History of Circus Horrors [15:17] – A look at genre films set within the at times unnerving world of circuses, fairs, and carnivals
  • Revisiting the House of Hammer: Britain’s Legendary Horror Magazine [9:47] – A love letter to a famed horror magazine with writer and obvious superfan Philip Nutman
  • Behind the Mirror: The Secret History of Vampire Circus [23:14] – A short documentary on the film’s production
  • Blood and Circuses [40:20] – An interview with director Robert Young
  • Vampire Victim [4:15] – An interview with actor Sibylla Kay
  • Cutting Hammer Horror [9:08] – An interview with editor Peter Musgrave

Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror

When Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee speak, horror audiences listen. The pair narrate a densely packed exploration of Hammer Films, a studio that produced hundreds of films in numerous genres, and they’re joined by interviews with stars, journalists, filmmakers, and more. Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis, Joe Dante, Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, David Prowse, Raquel Welch, and many others show the studio love, and it’s all well-warranted.

The already necessary documentary from 1994 gets both an HD upgrade and an additional forty-five minutes — this director’s cut clocks in at 2:26:34 — and it’s included as an extra with Vampire Circus. It focuses, quite obviously, on the studio’s horror output, but it’s a thorough ride through Hammer’s origins and rise to global awareness and eventual fall. As with the Hammer Horror box set itself, this doc is highly recommended.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.