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Hammer on the way up, Hammer on the way out...
on 28 March 2014
This Region 1 DVD from Anchor Bay weirdly pairs up two movies from totally opposite ends of the Hammer spectrum, in terms of both era and subject matter; about the only things they have in common are that they both feature company go-to guy Peter Cushing taking second billing to a B-list American leading man, and that neither is in any way representative of the company's best output.
The Abominable Snowman (1957) was adapted, like Hammer's then-recent Quatermass movies, from a Nigel Kneale-scripted BBC serial, and gave Cushing his second starring role in a Hammer movie (following the same year's The Curse of Frankenstein), in this case repeating the same part he played in the television version, that of a botanist who joins a Yeti-hunting expedition in the Himalayas. Compared to the disquieting Quatermass films and the full-blooded Frankenstein flick, this is quite a tame effort that didn't even rate an `X' certificate when it first played in British cinemas; director Val Guest dials down the gruesome details, instead opting for a subtler, more suggestive approach, befitting Kneale's vision of the title creatures as intelligent, gentle race, sought as part of a cynical money-making scheme by greedy humans. As was the case with most 1950s' Hammer films, an affordable lead with perceived appeal in the US was deemed vital by the producers, and here we have Forrest Tucker (Sands of Iwo Jima) playing the leader of the hunting party, replacing the TV original's Stanley Baker (ironically, probably a far bigger draw to UK audiences). The two stars are backed up by the wonderful Richard Wattis (Carry On Spying), and by Robert Brown, who would later succeed Bernard Lee as M in the James Bond series.
The second of the two movies is Shatter (1974), a low-rent espionage / martial arts thriller that came about as part of a short-lived co-production deal between Hammer and the prolific Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong (which also resulted in the off-the-wall, but not unlikeable, kung-fu / horror hybrid The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires). It feels like exactly what it was supposed to be, a pilot film for a proposed television series based around the exploits of the title character, an international hitman who eliminates troublesome targets on behalf of western governments. Fast approaching the end of the line as a viable production company, Hammer were running out of ideas by this stage, and this derivative B-movie makes that very clear; mixing up a bit of sub-007 jet-setting with some shoehorned-in kung-fu action, the film centres around assassin Stuart Whitman's attempts to steer clear of hired killers after he's conned into eliminating an African dictator that the CIA didn't actually want dead. The high-kicking action is provided by unpersuasive Bruce Lee wannabe Ti Lung as Whitman's sidekick / bodyguard, whilst the part of the main villain is taken by Anton Diffring, for once not playing a Nazi, but still effectively slimy as a crooked banker. In his very last Hammer film appearance, Cushing turns up as a shifty MI6 operative who attempts to warn off the protagonist before he gets in over his head, and though he has a very limited amount of screen time, Cushing is still the best thing about the movie (it's actually a joy watching him play a less-than-admirable character for a change); he certainly out-shines the haggard-looking Whitman, phoning in a generic tough guy turn and looking like he'd rather be in the hotel bar than on the set.
The movie is surprisingly vicious and violent, with some quite bloody assassination and execution scenes which certainly make the viewer sit up and take notice; but it is compromised by both Don Houghton's banal screenplay and the ham-fisted direction from Hammer head-honcho Michael Carreras, who took over shooting the film after he fired original choice Monte Hellman (Cockfighter). Carreras, son of company ambassador Sir James, always liked to get involved in the creative side of the operation, and had helmed several Hammer efforts in the past, but his list of directorial credits reads like a rundown of some of the company's worst movies (1964's The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, 1967's Prehistoric Women), and his work here again never rises above the passable.
Given the ridiculous prices quoted on Amazon for this DVD double bill, and the fact that the earlier and superior of these two flicks is currently available as a perfectly adequate Icon Entertainment Region 2 release, you'll need to be a Stuart Whitman fanatic or a hardcore kung-fu aficionado to even consider shelling out for it.