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Category Archives: ITC Entertainment

Hammer House of Horror: The House That Bled to Death (1980)

Possibly the most famous episode of Hammer House of Horror, The House That Bled to Death is as lurid as its title suggests. Ironically the appellation cannot help recalling The House That Dripped Blood; a portmanteau film produced by Hammer’s great rival—Amicus—which is rather less literal than this televisual outing. The plot is a familiar one: an average nuclear family moves into the modern suburban house in which a brutal murder was once committed. It is not long before they start to experience all manner of supernatural phenomena: the walls run with blood; a severed hand turns up in the fridge; and most significantly two hunting-knives keep reappearing in mysterious circumstances.

As ever, the influences on this episode of Hammer House of Horror are not difficult to discern: the most conspicuous is certainly The Amityville Horror; the film of which had been released the previous year—based on a bestselling book published in 1977. Closer to home, the episode was surely also influenced by the narrative of the Enfield Poltergeist: although Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the subject could only have been released a short time before the episode was written, the case gripped the British tabloid media from August 1977 until the paranormal activity abated in 1979. Although much of the imagery is drawn from the many domestic horror movies produced through the 1970s in the US, it is the controversy surrounding the books themselves that seems to have been episode’s principle inspiration.

Sadly many of the shock techniques deployed by The House That Bled to Death have lost their impact today and the episode certainly pales compared to that high watermark of British “suburban haunted-house” stories, Ghostwatch—it tries too hard to be graphic at the expense of building dread. The climactic set-piece in which a children’s party is showered in blood by a ruptured pipe ought to be sickening; however, the use of such vividly scarlet “Kensington gore” diminishes the credibility of the scene. The only truly disturbing moment is the sight of the family’s cat impaled on a broken window; a particularly nasty moment which makes you wonder if the script-writer was familiar with Nigel Kneale’s classic haunted-house story, Minuke—in which the family’s pet dog suffers a similar fate.

The double-twist conclusion leads us into Tales of the Unexpected territory and redeems much of what has gone before by demonstrating that its tackiness was deliberate. Yet like so many twist endings, it also leaves you feeling cheated—with the impression that the time you invested in the previous forty-five minutes was wasted on an extended set-up that proved to be misdirection. Moreover the rationalisation offered by the conclusions transmutes the episode from supernatural horror to psychological thriller in an instant. Whilst it makes us pause to ponder the effect cases like Amityville or Enfield had on the young children at the centre of those media maelstroms, it is ultimately a hollow revelation and rather less satisfying that its author doubtless intended.

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 11th October 1980.

 

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Hammer House of Horror: Guardian of the Abyss (1980)

It was a coincidence that I watched Guardian of the Abyss so hot on the heels of Warlock; my viewing schedule just happened to fall that way. Nonetheless it was a serendipitous, even synchronistic juxtaposition and while their use of occultism is fascinating to ponder individually, studying them in tandem is more instructive still. Both episodes use the language and motifs of the Western Mystery Tradition faithfully—neither reduces its practice or study to mere devil-worship—but there the similarity ends. The relative moral complexity of Cosmo Gallion’s circle in Warlock is entirely lacking in the Order of Choronzon: where Gallion was seeking knowledge and enlightenment; in Guardian of the Abyss, Charles Randolph is motivated entirely by pride and a base lust for power.

Indeed, Charles Randolph is essentially an analogue of Mocata, from Hammer’s 1968 cinematic adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel—The Devil Rides Out; and the narrative of Guardian of the Abyss is reminiscent of that classic film in several respects.These correspondences are only highlighted by the presence of Rosalyn Landor, whose first screen role had been in The Devil Rides Out when she was only ten years old. Fortunately her participation in Guardian of the Abyss was not a mere sop to cinema history and here she is the perfect choice for her aloof and otherworldly character. John Carson is similarly well cast—but as a veteran of Hammer villainy, that is unsurprising: he brings to Charles Randolph all the diabolical menace he exuded playing Squire Hamilton in Plague of the Zombies.

Guardian of the Abyss was scripted by David Fisher, who was responsible for a similarly occult-themed 1978 episode of Doctor Who—The Stones of Blood. Both these stories suggest he was fully conversant with occult mythology and Guardians of the Abyss is full of references that suggest he was aiming for a certain verisimilitude. Aleister Crowley’s attempts to invoke Choronzon are referenced; as are Doctor Dee’s experiments with Edward Kelly—his shewstone and his receipt of the Enochian language. Inevitably there is a glut of more clichéd imagery, including mesmerism, poppets and blood-sacrifice: this is a Hammer production after all! It’s curious to think that audiences in 1980 were expected to be fully conversant with such material—a legacy of the counter-culture’s diffusion into mainstream media.

Certainly the nods to The Devil Rides Out are intentional; there is even a plot device lifted straight from The Wicker Man and it shares that film’s downbeat ending. Indeed, although Guardian of the Abyss may exemplify the “demonisation” of occult traditions in popular media (no pun intended), you cannot say it isn’t appropriately spooky. The Order of Choronzon are a thoroughly sinister bunch and—despite some dodgy prosthetics—the climax is genuinely chilling. Indeed, it is probably far more unnerving than the conclusion of The Devil Rides Out. At the end of the day, that is exactly what you want from an episode of a horror anthology series—even if it means smearing Thelemites in the process. Besides: isn’t the frisson of transgression exactly what draws many people to the Left Hand Path in the first place?

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 15th November 1980

 

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