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Hammer Horror Series: Nightmare (1964)

Nightmare #1

by Steve Habrat

Despite what you may believe, Hammer Films didn’t only fiddle with gothic horror films about vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and mummys. In the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror film Psycho, studios began rushing to capitalize on the formula Hitchcock used to such shocking effect in 1960. Hammer was certainly no different, and among the Psycho-inspired films that they sent down the assembly line was the claustrophobic Nightmare, a spine-tingling psychological horror movie presented in noir-like black and white. Without an undead fiend to terrorize Peter Cushing or a busty woman in a low cut dress, many might be quick to dismiss Nightmare as a bit of a disappointment, especially since some of Hammer’s finest moments have been with Frankenstein or Dracula, but under the direction of studio regular Freddie Francis, Nightmare is an arresting exercise in spectral spooks and slasher brutality. It also happens to be an extremely gorgeous looking horror movie, one that features undeniably pristine cinematography and expert lighting effects to give the film quite a bit more bite than it already has.

Nightmare introduces us to Janet (played by Jennie Linden), a young woman who suffers from terrible nightmares that send her from her bed screaming bloody murder every single night. As a young girl, Janet accidentally witnessed her deranged mother stabbing her father to death, laughing all the while she plunged the knife into his chest. Now all grown up, Janet is enrolled in a boarding school, but her nightmares have grown so severe that one of her teachers, Mrs. Lewis (played by Brenda Bruce), convinces the school to send her home to her guardian, attorney Henry Baxter (played by David Knight). Upon arriving home, Janet meets her new nurse, Grace Maddox (played by Moira Redmond), chauffeur John (played by George A. Cooper), and housekeeper Mrs. Gibbs (played by Irene Richmond), but shortly after settling in, her nightmares begin and it also appears that she is suffering from disturbing hallucinations. She constantly sees a corpse with a bloody knife protruding from its chest and she catches glimpses of a ghostly woman wandering the halls in a trance. Day after day, Janet is convinced that she has inherited her mother’s insanity, but after a brutal attack, she is shipped off to a hospital for serious treatment. Shortly after Janet is gone, certain members of the house begin to suspect that Janet may not have been suffering from terrible hallucinations after all.

In true Hammer fashion, Francis puts plenty of emphasis on the film’s setting and atmosphere. The film opens in a darkened sanitarium as a woman’s voice calls out to a terrified Janet, who is wandering these threatening halls unaccompanied. This journey culminates with Janet stepping into a padded cell and staring her unhinged mother right in the face. Francis quickly steps in and reminds us that it’s just a nightmare, but judging from the screams of the poor Janet, these dreams are pushing her fragile state to the breaking point. It should be noted that anytime anyone screams in Nightmare, the sound work on the shrieks will have you frozen in horror. The screams that the characters emit could shatter concrete. After we emerge from the sanitarium of terror, Francis gives us a small break before he drops us into another house of horror. Cramped with lavish furniture and engulfed by heavy shadows cast down hallways and in bedrooms just down the hall, there seems to be no escape for poor Janet. Every night before she settles in for bed, she hears a faint noise that lures her away from her bed. She bumps into a woman wearing a white gown and sporting a nasty scar on her cheek and she discovers a corpse that has been hacked and slashed to death. Each scare is executed with precision and the claustrophobic goth that wraps around us makes Nightmare unshakeable.

Nightmare #2

While Nightmare doesn’t enjoy the presence of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or even Oliver Reed, Francis still manages to capture some rock-solid performances that are sure to keep you entertained. Linden is perfect as the young, sympathetic Janet who just wants her night terrors to cease. Her final push into violence is made all the more disturbing through the fact that she had so much innocence in her heart. Redmond puts on a kindly face as Janet’s new nurse, Grace, but as the horror progresses, we realize that there is a dark side lurking deep down within her just waiting to emerge. Knight is charismatic as Janet’s guardian, Henry Baxter, who perks the young girl up just by walking into her bedroom. Irene Richmond and George A. Cooper is in supporting roles as John and Mrs. Gibbs, but in the end, Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster give them the opportunity to play hero to the violence and madness overtaking the mansion. Brenda Bruce is another warm and caring force as Mary Lewis, Janet’s concerned teacher who thinks it’s best if she spends some time at home. Probably the strongest performance in Nightmare Isla Cameron as Mother (that sounds very Psycho to me…), who smiles as she waves a knife around and seems to find enjoyment in her daughters horrified screams for help.

Considering that Nightmare was riding the wave of Psycho’s popularity, there are a few little similarities that the viewer just can’t turn a blind eye to. First is the twist that is pulled at the end, something that won’t be revealed here, but that is indeed strikingly similar to some parts of Hitchcock’s slasher. There is also the fact that our main character, Janet, disappears halfway through the movie, something that is glaringly similar to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane (luckily, Hammer didn’t decide to stab her to death in a shower). This lift could have been disastrous, but luckily, Sangster writes up supporting characters that can carry the film when Janet steps out. Overall, if you have had your fill of watching Van Helsing drive stakes through the heart of Dracula, or you need to break from watching Victor Frankenstein reanimating lifeless flesh, Nightmare offers a nice change of pace for Hammer fans. It doesn’t push the limits of the horror of personality subgenre (Hitchcock still remains the master) and it has been unfairly overshadowed by the studio’s color monster movies, but it does give the psychological horror film a heavy gothic makeover, throws in some “ghosts,” and petrifies anyone who hates creepy old dolls. Bonus points for the rich use of black and white film.

Grade: B

Nightmare is available on DVD.

Pontypool (2008)

by Steve Habrat

What would happen if you smashed together George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the 1938 radiobroadcast of War of the Worlds? You would end up with Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, a voluble spin on the zombie horror film that uses semiotics as the virus that turns helpless citizens into mindless cannibals. Pontypool embraces simplicity in every frame, borrowing Romero’s creeping claustrophobic atmosphere and allowing it to play with a mysterious phenomenon that is mostly heard and rarely ever seen. Director McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess, who adapted the script from his own novel, are relentlessly fascinated with the power of words, ideas, and their lasting effect on those who hear them. Giving us only four characters to root for and cementing the action within the walls of a radio station, Pontypool keeps things spooky with distant bumps, thumps, and fuzzy reports from within the chaos, tricks that prod the imagination and send it into a tumult.

Pontypool follows a fussy shock jock radio host named Grant Mazzy (Played by Stephen McHattie), who on his snowy drive to work encounters a woman mumbling unintelligible gibberish. She wanders off into the snow, leaving Mazzy with just an unsettling story to share with his listeners. When he arrives to work, he begins his show Mazzy in the Morning like normal, complaining to his tense producer Sydney Briar (Played by Lisa Houle) about how bland the day’s news is. Caught in the middle of their bickering is Laurel-Ann (Played by Georgina Reilly) who attempts to keep the peace between them. What finally interrupts the battle are strange reports of rioting at the office of a Doctor Mendez (Played by Hrant Alianak). As more reports pour in, the stories begin to describe cannibalism and other bizarre behavior spreading from Mendez’s office. As the masses of mindless ghouls close in on the radio station, Grant, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann discover that the English language may be carrying a bug that turns those who speak certain words into zombies.

McDonald doesn’t hesitate to allow us to get to know these characters, much like the work of Romero, and then begins to pull the rug out from under us. The small number makes the invisible horror and looming danger even more unbearable when it comes crashing in. But McDonald doesn’t stop here, adding the idea that if the ghouls get in, there is nowhere for the people trapped inside to run to. This is what makes Pontypool a winner in my eyes. It was excruciating not truly knowing what was going on outside the walls of the radio station. Things get even more gut wrenching when the heard and not seen weather reporter Ken Loney (Played by Rick Roberts) phones in with what he is seeing and his experiences within the spreading terror. Keeping the viewer in the dark, we get hooked on answers and even when we get them, they are a bit ambiguous, spewing from the mouth of the on-the-run Doctor Mendez, who seeks refuge from the hordes in the radio station.

Pontypool is carried by the performance by McHattie as Grant Mazzy, the self-aware radio personality with quite a bit on his mind. When the truth hits that the reports coming are indeed reality, his hardened face melts into paranoia and apprehension. McHattie is an astonishing actor when it comes to deadpan facial expression. He is a whirlwind when his mouth is flapping but his quieter moments, when he has to piece together a way out, overshadow the moments when he is in front of a microphone. McHattie plays well with Houle as Sydney, who goes to great lengths to keep her wits about her. A phone call to her family will take your breath away and break your heart. McHattie and Houle have drawn out conversations that at times feel scripted, more the fault of Burgess, and you can tell they are straining the aggravation for each other. In the final stretch, they really pull through and click; the final twenty minutes their blaze of glory together. Reilly fairs well as Laurel-Ann, getting to execute some physical stuff halfway through the film and also getting the best gore sequence the film has to offer. Alianak as Doctor Mendenz ends up venturing a little too far into B-movie territory, a choice that ends up paling in comparison to the top-notch performances by the other three actors. I was also heavily impressed with the voice work from Rick Roberts as Ken Loney, who had to convey so much with only his voice. Many of the goosebumps I got while watching Pontypoll came from him. Bravo, sir!

Like almost all zombie movies, Pontypool has much more on its mind than simply chewing on flesh. Critical of the English language and the impact words can have on those who hear them, Pontypool seemed to be saying that we are an impressionable group of people. When the zombies hear new words or phrases, they begin frantically repeating what they hear. The message I took away from Pontypool is that we simply don’t think for ourselves, hanging on the words from shock jock radio commentators and the like, carrying their messages around like mindless prophets. And yet I feel like there is more to be found in Pontypool as the film is practically on its knees for a repeat viewing. It seemed to me that more pieces to this puzzle and the overall message would come together the more we expose ourselves to the film. I’m itching to revisit the film to pull back a few more of its layers.

If you are hoping for an explosion of gore and intestines at the end of Pontypool, you will be severely disappointed. There are only a few scenes that contain graphic sequences of gore. If you are crossing your fingers for lots of roaming cannibals, don’t get your hopes up, as only a handful of the ghouls are actually seen. In fact, many may find themselves bored to tears with the movie but I actually found it to be a nice change of pace. I loved the low budget approach and all the implied horror rather than the all out nasty stuff that many zombie movies indulge in. Pontypool turns out to be one of the creepier modern films that I have seen, one that scares us on a psychological level. It keeps us on pins and needles and the gloomy final stretch of the film would make Romero proud. If Pontypool sounds like your cup of apocalyptic doom, you need to hurry up and see it. Just don’t forget your thinking cap.

Grade: A-

Pontypool is available on DVD.