Hammer Volume Six: Night Shadow – Blu-Ray Review

This is the sixth volume in the ongoing attempt of Indicator to bring loads of Hammer films back to life on Blu-Ray. Shadow of the Cat is in the “killer cat” vein (although Tabitha the cat isn’t the guilty party here). It’s a weird one, because while it’s a Hammer movie, for some reason that isn’t credited in the titles. Shadow of the Cat was originally released on a double bill with the Oliver Reed film Curse of the Werewolf. It’s a murder mystery with a slight supernatural element, where an elderly woman who is the mistress of a house is murdered by the butler. The cat sees it, and the murderer plans to kill the cat—but it’s a very smart kitty… The murder was done in collusion with the victim’s husband and the maid, so things get complicated. Her favourite niece, played by Barbara Shelley is invited to stay at the house while all this is going on, and ends up on the cat’s side.

It’s a decent little mystery movie that comes in short at 79 minutes, making Shadow of the Cat perfect double-bill fare. Directed by John Gilling, who did a lot of Hammer films but had a complicated relationship with the company, it has some nice black-and-white photography shot by Arthur Grant. Grant did many of the better Hammer films of the ‘60s, and shot Tomb of Ligeia for Roger Corman, speaking of “killer cat” movies, at the end of Corman’s Poe cycle. The cast, including Shelley, is pretty good, and the cat itself is a great feline actor. It’s probably not the best film to watch with your cat, however, because some nasty things happen to it.

Captain Clegg is based on the Doctor Syn series of pirate novels, about a vicar with a dark past involving piracy on the high seas. Hammer had done pirate movies before, but Disney actually bought up the rights to the series while the film was in production. Hammer was always looking for another franchise after their Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy films did well. So here the character becomes Parson Blyss, but his pirate alter ego remained Captain Clegg. Disney’s version was Scarecrow of Romney Marsh with Patrick McGoohan as the lead character.

The result of all this was a convoluted production, with Peter Cushing playing Clegg/Blyss, the pirate/vicar. His gang are dressed up like skeletons, a striking image that’s what they used as the cover, which suggests it’s a horror feature. While it’s actually a swashbuckling film, they didn’t have much money so most of it’s on land—but it’s not a bad movie for a Saturday matinee. There’s a bit of spookiness with the “skeleton crew” who are smugglers here rather than pirates. When it came out in the US it was sold as a horror film under the alternative title Night Creatures and even the British poster plays up the horror angle. Cushing is having a great time in his swashbuckling role, and Oliver Reed has a bit part as well.

Next up is The Phantom of the Opera, and it is hands down the worst of the set. Sadly, it was directed by Terence Fisher, usually Hammer’s premiere director. Fisher did Hammer’s Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein and The Devil Rides Out and many more, making him their go-to guy. What happened behind the scenes was more interesting: Phantom of the Opera was one of the films Hammer did with Columbia as part of a five-films-per-year deal, making for a better budget than usual. Strangely, Cary Grant had expressed interest in doing a Hammer movie—allegedly he was a fan—so screenwriter Anthony Hinds wrote it with Grant in mind. Exactly who Grant wanted to play is up for debate, with some saying it was the Phantom, which would have been an interesting choice for him, while others say it would have been romantic lead Harry Hunter. But in the end, Grant did not appear in this movie. It ended up as a double-bill release with Captain Clegg, with Hubert Lom, whom some will remember from The Ladykillers, as the Phantom. (Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee would have been great as the Phantom, but apparently Lee had some tax issues at the time that were keeping him out of the UK.)

It has some great sets, but I’m not even that big of a fan of the Universal Phantom—the only one of the Universal Monsters that’s in colour. It’s certainly one of the weaker of Fisher’s Hammer films, but one nice thing about ts inclusion on ithis box set is that you can replicate the original double bill for a Hammer evening at home.

Nightmare is probably the best film in this set. It’s about a girl whose mother has gone crazy and killed her father. The mother is now in a mental hospital, and when the daughter comes home from finishing school, she soon fears that she too is going insane. Originally it was meant to have Julie Christie as the lead, Janet, but Jennie Linden came in as last-minute choice. Christie had just starred in A for Andromeda, and Hammer was always good at getting good young actors and actresses under contract. But then Christie was offered Billy Liar, and was able to wiggle her way out of the contract to become a star. Linden is quite good in it, however.

Nightmare does have the problem that some Hammer films have, where part-way through the film they swap the protagonists, and the film starts to suffer from it. It was directed by Freddie Francis, who was probably better known as a cinematographer. Until his death he was one of David Lynch’s key collaborators, shooting The Elephant Man and Dune, and reuniting year later with Lynch on The Straight Story. Francis also shot The Innocents, one of the best British horror films of the ‘60s and clearly an inspiration for this one. Clytie Jessop, who was the ghost of Miss Jessel in The Innocents, plays The Woman in White who appears in the character’s nightmares.

It’s an effective psychological thriller that relies too much on multiple twists—I’d describe it as more Diabolique than Psycho, although the poster makes it look like a Psycho knockoff. That makes it a continuation of the psychological thrillers that Hammer started doing in the wake of Psycho, of which Taste of Fear was the high water mark (that one is in Volume Four of this series, my favourite of the six).

Each film comes with its own extensive booklet featuring new and old writing about the films, extracts from the press packs that went out with them, contemporary critical responses and film credits. Most of the films are available in slightly different cuts so you have options there. On top of that, the disc is loaded with extras: Kim Newman does an introduction for each film, and there are commentaries, interviews, documentaries, stills, trailers and much more.

★★★

Ian Schultz

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