In spite of a visually-pleasant presentation from U.S. distributor Synapse Films, Hammer's early 80's foray into a televised horror anthology format doesn't so much bring the horror as the consistently horrible.
Hammer House of Horror might be up your alley if you find any of the following menacing: bunny entrails, kids with bad haircuts, very brightly-lit, stately settings where very professional British actors deliberate over their actions, and driving scenes, oh so many driving scenes. The rare hour-long horror television series, this 1980-1981 British series is well-acted, expertly produced, and as dull as watching paint dry.
Created by Hammer Council member Roy Skeggs, this 13-episode series of 50-minute horror stories crossed all kinds of territory: from witches, to haunted orphans (kind of), to sexually endless dreams, getting around to cannibals, to haunted houses. The show can't be faulted for staking out territory with ripe subject matter or for casting its productions with a collection of solid actors (I was pleasantly surprised to see Trading Places and Raiders of the Lost Ark actor Denholm Elliott make an appearance in "Rude Awakening").
Unfortunately, the whole series is rather dry and ponderous--there's no moment of possible, easy tension that's not stretched well beyond its breaking point, no moment that that doesn't reach for hamminesss and then go well beyond (the dinner party scene in "The Thirteenth Reunion" is a marvel at this last bit). I couldn't help thinking of the fake series within a series Garth Merenghi's Darkplace as possibly being inspired by the overblown and under-developed plots here.
I'm trying to find a bright spot outside of (many) of the performances, but there's not much to draw on here. The length of each episode allows the relatively thin stories (couple moves into a house, discovers it's haunted, a neurotic composer discovers is visited by a 17th-century witch, or a woman becoming aware of her extended werewolf family. The occasional burst of graphic or potentially unsettling moments are rendered inert by how long it takes to get there. The series does have a couple of moments of gnarly, grotesque violence, but they're often awkwardly set up or feel wholly divorced from the rest of the episode.
Researching the set, I learned that the series made some "Best Moments in Horror" lists--I have no idea why.
Synapse's five-disc set includes a handful of features on the last disc which includes the final episode, "The Mark of Satan." That episode gets a 90 second introduction detailing some of the hurdles seeing that episode here in the U.S., its graphic violence keeping it from TV broadcasts and previous home video releases. "Grave Recollections" (8:25) is a brief interview with the Dark Shadows actress Kathryn Leigh Scott about her time on the episode "A Visitor From the Grave." Similarly, Hungarian actress Mia Nadasi is featured in "Hammer Housekeeping: A Visit With Mia Nadasi" (6:14) in a frank discussion about her bad girl parts in horror and following a successful stage career in Budapest in a string of good girl parts. Like Scott's interview, this one is focused on her time in the episode "A Visitor From the Grave."
The Complete Hammer House of Horror is available now on DVD from Synapse Films.