Review

Review

Blood of the Vampire (1958) / The Hellfire Club (1961)

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Dark Sky Films presents an entertaining pair of low-budget period British programmers in this double-feature DVD, both produced by the team of Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, and written by regular Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster. Blood of the Vampire, contrary to what its title implies, is a mad doctor film about a dying scientist who runs an asylum and performs blood experiments on its inmates in an effort to prolong his own life, while The Hellfire Club is a rousing, swashbuckling adventure film about a young Lord who has been dispossessed of his title by a nefarious cousin and seeks, with the assistance of various friends and cohorts, to regain his estate and right the wrongs done in his family?s name. If both these scenarios sound overly familiar, the films themselves are admirably done and make a fun evening?s double feature for fans of the period and genre.

If the name ?Baker and Berman? isn?t as synonymous with horror and adventure films as that of their more famous, fellow English studio Hammer, it?s not through any lack of talent or effort. The pair of London-born entrepreneurs met in Egypt during World War Two, where both were working as part of combat film units. Seeing an opportunity for success in the lucrative, postwar film market upon their return to England, the two became partners and began producing low budget co-features, basically programmers for cinemas to show in-between major studio pictures. But after the immense success of Hammer?s 1957 blockbuster The Curse of Frankenstein, the producers quickly hired that film?s young screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and engaged him to craft a theatrical remake of a popular science fiction TV serial called ?The Trollenberg Terror.? The resulting film of the same name ? called The Crawling Eye when it was exported to the U.S. ? was a hit and, despite being written by a Hammer screenwriter and co-starring Peter Cushing, an actor who even at that early stage was almost synonymous with Hammer productions, established enough of a unique reputation for Baker and Berman that they were able to turn out a half-dozen well-regarded horror and genre films over the next four years. These include the Sangster-written Whitechapel thriller Jack the Ripper, the horror comedy What a Carve-Up!, and the terrific Burke and Hare body-snatching horror The Flesh and the Fiends (aka Mania), starring Cushing and Donald Pleasence (later to be immortalized as Halloween?s Dr. Loomis). After a short run of thrillers and adventure films, the pair moved primarily to television production, creating, among other series, the successful Roger Moore pre-Bond heist adventure ?The Saint.?

Made immediately after The Crawling Eye, Blood of the Vampire fits firmly in the Hammer mold of horror films, featuring an unjustly-wronged lead character and his loyal fiancée thrown into a terrible situation featuring a maniac doctor and his gallery of horrors. Sangster was working at the same time on creating Hammer?s second big monster movie hit, The Horror of Dracula, and many of the situations in Blood are similar to it and to later Sangster films, though the film doesn?t suffer as a result. Young doctor John Pierre (Australian Vincent Ball) is sent to prison for his misunderstood experiments in blood research, where he goes into the service of the strange warden Dr. Callistratus (classically trained actor Donald Wolfit), who, unbeknownst to Pierre, has actually been executed as a ?vampire? in Transylvania but kept alive through macabre medical means until his hunchbacked, one-eyed servant Carl was able to have his stake-pierced heart replaced with a fresh one! Callistratus needs Pierre to help him find a cure for his depleted blood condition, all the while keeping himself going with regular transfusions from the less-than-willing inmates. In order to help Pierre escape, his beautiful fiancée Madeleine (Hammer regular Barbara Shelley) finds a job as Callistratus? housekeeper, unaware that doing so makes it very likely that she?ll be his next unwilling blood donor!

Despite not actually having a vampire in it (Baker chuckles about the misleading advertising campaign on the disc?s fine commentary track, which he shares with a lively Sangster and UK journalist Marcus Hearn), Blood is an atmospheric, relatively gruesome horror pic with all the usual genre tropes of the time, though it picks up considerably after its slow first hour (it runs 85 minutes total), once Pierre discovers Callistratus? ?other laboratory,? where his victims are kept in a state of suspended animation until their blood is needed. Unfortunately, the Grand Guignol aspects of the movie are somewhat compromised because Dark Sky has provided viewers with only a cut version of the film, although some additional explanation is needed here.

From the late 50s through the 60s and even into the 70s, many British horror films were released in two versions ? one for the UK and U.S. markets with their strict censorship and ratings systems, and another for the more liberal continental European and Japanese markets, where audiences appreciated some extra blood and sex. Although Hammer rarely, if ever, created ?continental versions? of their films, the Baker and Berman team did so with nearly all of their genre pictures. Sadly, Blood of the Vampire and its co-feature are presented here in their tamer British editions, despite the continental versions of both being widely available (at least in the case of Hellfire Club); why Dark Sky wasn?t able to secure those elements, we can only speculate. But it?s obvious when watching Blood where the cuts are, and Baker and Sangster even mention on the commentary track several entire scenes that were cut for UK release, including one where Callistratus? first housekeeper is experimented upon in his dungeon. While Hellfire Club suffers less than the horror film ? its continental footage consists mainly of some undraped bar wenches in the lively pub and orgy sequences ? it?s still a major missed opportunity to present the films in definitive editions, as Image Entertainment did several years ago with their release of Baker and Berman?s The Flesh and the Fiends, which includes both versions on the same disc.

Also unfortunate is that, although both films are presented in what Dark Sky notes are new transfers, each has its own share of serious technical problems. Hellfire Club (which stars Hammer?s Vampire Circus star Adrienne Corri and features Cushing in a small, mainly comedic supporting role) is letterboxed at 2.35:1 and presented anamorphically, but there is major distortion at both sides of the frame, probably as a result of the lenses of the day. Less easy to excuse is some major print damage, including a lot of speckling and one major splice that has been left unrestored. The sound is tinny and compressed, and it?s clear that a projection print was used for the transfer source.

Blood doesn?t fare any better, either, though it?s difficult to complain too much since the film was considered at one point to be nearly lost. Curiously, the DVD presents the opening credits at a 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio, then jumps to a 1.78:1 ratio for the remainder of the film. Since non-scope British films of the time were 1.75:1, both of these are incorrect, although something more serious is amiss with Dark Sky?s transfer. It appears that all four sides of the picture have been cropped on the film, with the bottom especially tight ? people?s faces are routinely cut off and one important scene which shows a character reaching down to pick up something at his feet has him reaching off-screen for it! The picture is extremely soft, as well, and lacks strong colors; it almost seems as if one or both of the films might have been transferred from 16mm ? perhaps this was the only remaining film element for Blood?

As if to compensate for the lackluster film transfers, Dark Sky has presented the two films as part of one of their ?Drive-In Double Feature? discs, allowing viewers to watch both together in a simulated evening?s entertainment, complete with scratchy vintage (American) refreshment ads, intermission notices and previews of other Dark Sky DVDs spliced into the mix. The films can also be watched separately, though on the DVD players used for this review, the individual films weren?t accessible from the main menu until after the ?Play All? button had been selected, and then the main menu accessed again. The commentary on Vampire and talent bios for both films are then accessible, along with chapter pages and buttons to play each film individually.

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