I know it took place earlier this month, still at some remove from Halloween, but I can’t help feeling that the new DVD release of Hammer House of Horror must be one of the genre’s home video highlights of the season, maybe the year. Synapse Films has done its typical bang-up job in terms of the transfer, with the result that this 1980 TV series (it ran for but a single season) now looks and sounds better than ever.
Does that mean it’s so pristine that it has lost some of its late-‘70s feel? Hardly. In fact, I think the overall me-decade vibe and its particular brand of horror is one of the main virtues of the series, at least for anyone who’s savvy enough to be a regular Kindertrauma reader. And of course a big part of that period’s aesthetic was its depiction of children in all their creepy, other-ly glory.
Perhaps the best known episode of Hammer House of Horror in this regard is “Children of the Full Moon.” Despite its title telegraphing the monster du jour, the story still manages to go places that you don’t see coming—and very nasty places at that. The kids themselves are the very image of courteous British youngsters, apart, of course, from all those eerie off-screen noises they make. “Oh, that’s them—the little horrors,” exclaims Diana Dors, part of a memorable performance that plays exquisitely with the Kindly Maternal archetype. Ultimately, the kids aren’t central to the actual action but, interestingly, they become increasingly important to the episode’s themes about the nature of humans and animals and how we ignore any overlap at our own peril.
Another notable episode also seems to make its lone child character fairly tangential to the main plot. At first, that is. By the conclusion of “The House That Bled to Death,” however, there can be no doubt regarding that character’s importance; in fact, what makes the lurid script so brilliant is the way that the narrative kind of ignores her because that means that the audience does as well… until she comes back to haunt us. Well, I don’t mean haunt us literally—or wait, maybe I do: I’m being coy because I don’t want to give away too much. And for that same reason I certainly don’t want to dwell too much on a scene at a kids’ birthday party that may be the most celebrated sequence of the entire series. In terms of sheer logic, sure, what happens is more than a bit nonsensical, but that just adds to the fun.
My favorite episode that features kids prominently, and one of my favorites overall, has to be “Growing Pains.” Honestly, though, I can’t tell how many of its neat psychological effects are intentional and how many are the result of some storytelling incoherence mixed with paranormal elements drawn from the making-up-the-rules-as-we-go-along school. But who cares? The episode sports tragic deaths (that might still prompt giggles), weird science, stuffed animals, and a supremely ambiguous, and therefore effective, turn by child actor Matthew Blakstad. “Growing Pains” thus feels like The Turn of the Screw filtered through schlock… which is precisely what makes it so wonderful.
Of course the series has plenty of reasons for one to like it apart from its kid-centric episodes. “The Silent Scream,” with Peter Cushing and Brian Cox, is justifiably praised for its unnerving originality, and I’m personally quite fond of the demented surrealism of “Rude Awakening.” But check out the thirteen episodes for yourself, and discover your own favorite. You really can’t go wrong.
Peter Gutiérrez writes on horror for Rue Morgue and Firefox News, and blogs on film and pop culture for School Library Journal.