A co-production between Britain’s Hammer Studios and Fox’ American TV division, Hammer House of Mystery represents the studio’s last poke at production before the veteran British studio shuttered and remained dormant for more than two decades.
Broadcast in the U.S. as the Fox Mystery Theatre, the 13 episodes ran a good twenty minutes longer than Hammer’s prior series, Hammer House of Horror [M] (1980), and each tale starred a recognizable American actor from the small screen, supported by some of Britain’s top talent, albeit not always in top form.
The assigned directors were more often veterans of Hammer’s theatrical output, but even they seemed to recognize most of the scripts lacked coherence or any genuine dramatic gravitas. The impression of the entire HHMS run is of a concept pitched with a handful of completed and vetted scripts, but rushed into production to meet the more stringent deadlines of Hammer’s American partner, Fox. The great imbalance between pre-production time and onscreen quality becomes evident around the midpoint, with the remaining episodes degenerating into absolute rubbish.
Val Guest, whose career includes The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Hell is a City (1960), and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), directed a trio of episodes. “Mark of the Devil,” written by Brian Clemens (The Avengers series, Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter [M]) has Dirk Benedict (Battlestar: Galactica) playing an indebted gambler cursed by the owner of a tattoo parlor he murdered for money. As the days pass, a tattoo on his chest begins to grow, revealing details of his heinous crime, and what lies ahead. Jenny Seagrove (The Guardian) plays his fiancée, and Burt Kwoul (The Pink Panther) is the tattoo shop’ owner.
“In Possession” has Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure) and Christopher Cazenove (Dynasty) playing a married couple seeing ghosts of the former occupants of their flat. Unable to leave the apartment, the couple witnesses the murder which took place decades ago, and are unexpectedly able to communicate with the spirits at odd junctures. The dialogue is terrible, the scenes are labored to extend the material is suitable for a half-hour segment, and the finale is terribly lame. This, however, is not Guest’s nadir.
“Child’s Play” opens with a peculiar and intriguing Twilight Zone premise – a family discovers their house has been walled up with a shield of impregnable metal – but it loses logic as their daughter (Debbie Chasan, giving the worst performance in the series) claims her mother is a phony. Worked into the meandering mess are characters discovering their limbs becoming stiff, objects have been stamped with a strange logo, and a volcanic green goo is pouring from the chimney into their house. The ‘twist finale’ is hardly a shock, but it’s less grating than Graham Wassell’s terrible dialogue. Nicholas Clay’s performance as the father is pitched far too high, as he invested every ounce of RADA training into what is a cardboard role. The token American star, Mary Crosby (Dallas), is surprisingly strong, but she can’t save this absolute waste of time.
Director Peter Sasdy (Hands of the Ripper [M]) also returns to TV with a trio of slightly better efforts. “Last Video and Testament” has an ailing industrialist suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, and plots an extended torment from his grave. Deborah Raffin (Noble House) is the trophy wife with a strong desire to take over the genetics business of husband Victor Frankham (a very melodramatic David Langton), while Oliver Tobias is the possible clandestine lover who has plans to claim the company’s power positioning full. The episode is an interesting time capsule of video and computer gear, but there’s little of value in this tedium with a banal ear-aching twist.
“The Late Nancy Irving” fares better, since it manages to sustain most of the twist material to the end. Christina Raines (The Duellists, TV’s Flamingo Road) is a tennis star with a rare blood type who finds herself trapped in a remote clinic after a near-lethal car accident. Raines is unusually strong, showing more range than her prior guest appearances on assorted TV episodes and in minor film roles, and veteran character actor Marius Goring (The Spy in Black) is almost unrecognizable in a small role.
Brian Clemens delivered a banal double-cross plot in “The Sweet Scent of Death” in which a U.S. Ambassador (Dean Stockwell) and his wife (Shirley Knight) sense someone is plotting to harm them after vacationing at a remote English mansion. A former lawyer, Knight fears it may be a man she helped convict, but the entire tale drags on, with Clemens’ script focusing more on ersatz witty dialogue than logical human reactions and behaviour. ‘An odor of absolute boredom.’
John Hough (The Legend of Hell House) had his own trio of shockers, starting off with “Czech Mate,” a minor story of secret agents, entrapment, and subterfuge benefitting from excellent locations, and a strong performance by Susan George (star of Hough’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry). The mystery of why her husband has disappeared is prolonged, and the odd behaviour by hotel clerks, locals, and the discovery of a body aren’t so neatly plotted out, but the finale is satisfying, making this lone episode the only effort of the 13 which feels like a modest theatrical B-movie.
Hough’s “A Distant Scream” is a supernatural tale of a woman (Dynasty’s Stephanie Beacham) who sees her photographer lover (David Carradine) in two guises: in his present incarnation, and as an aged, ghostly apparition with whom only she can see and communicate. The twist isn’t unique, but there’s atmospheric use of a rugged, saltwater ravaged coastal resort, and a supporting cast who make do with clichéd archetypes of hick locals.
The director’s final tale is the rather ludicrous “Black Carrion” that begins as an a reporter’s (Leigh Lawson) investigative news piece on a hit band who disappeared twenty years ago without a trace, and the accompanying photographer (Season Hubley) whose sense of déjà vu depends as the news pair discover why a remote town has become a black hole for strangers who wander off the main road. Moody yet clumsily structured, the story also fails due a maniacally repetitive use of pop songs (which sound more eighties than sixties), and the rather spastic behaviour of the photographer. As one half of the Verne singers, Allan Love avaricious acting style is oppressive, and the finale is wholly dimwitted.
Among the remaining episodes, only one is noteworthy. “Paint Me a Murder” has a clever hook: a painter (Lames Lauenson) fakes his death so his spouse (Knots Landing’s Michelle Phillips) can reap profits from his ‘last masterpieces’ which he actually crafts while holed up in an attic. The finale is predictable, but there’s good ambiance in Pat Silver and Jesse Lasky’s script, and director Alan Cooke makes good use of the locations, especially the cottage by some striking white cliffs – seen in numerous other productions, such as the trippy Hammeresque shocker Corruption (1968).
David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) struggles to give life to “The Corvini Inheritance,” a clumsy pastiche of a serial killer mystery, jewel robbery, and a reclusive security expert who may be getting too close to his pretty recently assaulted next-doo neighbour (Jan Francis). The twist is rubbish, and the only interesting element is the clunky video gear McCallum uses to track passersby at home and visitors at the art auction house where he’s employed.
Barbi Benton may have appreciated a rare non-bimbo role as an expert on Medieval vernacular churches, but “And the Wall Came Tumbling Down” is a meandering, badly acted supernatural tale of a painting with a bloody history unearthed during the demolition of a church, and old spirits who return to the present for revenge. Paul Annett’s direction is undistinguished, but so is the writing. Only the grimy locations offer some interesting colour.
The last stinker in the series is “Tennis Court,” where the jealous spirit of an aged pilot housed at a senior’s home is able to exert fearsome and lethal damage on his former love, and anyone that dare enter the tennis court where he once played with his former best friends. Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) is the ex-best friend / priest with a dark past, and Hannah Gordon plays the woman loved by two men. Cyril Frankel’s direction is very buoyant – his camera and editing are very energetic – but his efforts to maintain momentum and mystery are thoroughly for naught when the wrap-up is a laughable cliché, and the last shot is starkly lame.
HHMS had great potential, especially since Hammer’s prior horror series often had concepts which could’ve been expanded to feature lengths, but for many of the stories here, at 70 minutes the worst episodes drag before they reach a contrived twist. Like its horror cousin, HHMS was largely shot on location, and the best episodes take full advantage of the locales in & and around London. It’s especially amusing to see “Last Video and Testament” filmed in the glassy corporate office which served as the American Ambassador’s HQ in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981).
The episodes don’t suffer from the U.S. casting – the writers managed to make their inclusion among British co-stars and veteran supporting actors feel quite natural – but in being tailored for the American market, none of the risqué tone from the horror series was carried over. Even in stronger, atmospheric episodes like “Czech Mate” and “Distant Scream” there are one or three too many sequences where actors hurry between locations, providing obvious padding for another set of ad breaks.
The music scores are highly inconsistent in quality, and in many cases they sound like stock music rather than original scores meant for a snug dramatic fit. (The recording quality is also weak, adding a shrillness to some material, especially the rather whiny series theme.)
HHMS deserves a proper DVD release (an OOP Region 2 edition reportedly contains an hour of fresh extras), but there may be a need for some restoration work if the broadcast masters in current (and rare) circulation are on par with wanly coloured 16mm prints. Should a proper set emerge, one hopes there are some solid featurettes and interviews on the series making, ill-executed compromises for the U.S. market, and its reception in the U.K. and the U.S. during its original broadcast.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan