For many film fans, the moniker Hammer Film Productions instantly summons the association with classic British horror. The studio, established in 1934, became the reigning monarchs of British horror from the late 50’s to the mid-seventies—making icons out of the likes of Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee. However, long before 1957, when studio producers stumbled on what was to become their bread and butter for the next twenty years with the inimitable Curse of Frankenstein (1957), it was a very different matter. The move into horror would ensure that the fast and furious production into genre pieces would follow, and see the studio win the Queens Award to Industry in 1968. Prior to this, Hammer Film managed to plod along slowly but surely (although they did experience bankruptcy in 1937 and later resurrection) by turning out a variety of films—from comedy to thrillers, sci-fi, and even drama pieces—mainly low-budget, quota quickies for a fast return. A lot of this output gets left by the wayside in favor of the cult status horror features that made the studio a household brand, but scratch beneath the surface and there is a host of solid British films to be devoured. Not all of the pre-horror content reaches the heady heights of the Hammer heyday, admittedly, but it is an area worth exploring nevertheless.
House Across the Lake, now out to own on DVD courtesy of Network, is an example of the more obscure pre-Frankenstein features. Made in 1954—just a year before the studio took a step in the direction that would alter its course with the sci-fi based The Quatermass Xperiment—the bulk of studio production focused around cheap, and maybe not so cheerful, crime thrillers, or noir. House Across the Lake takes on this premise. The story of a femme fatale, Carol Forrest, who cheats on her rich husband, Beverley; and, when he threatens to cut her out of his will, she takes whatever steps are necessary to stop this from happening. An American novelist, Mark Kendrick, who has just moved into the house across the lake—the film’s title taken from this obvious facet—, gets embroiled in the couple’s martial problems. First, by becoming friendly with Beverley and then becoming the focus of Carol and used as a toy for her seduction.
The film was produced with part Stateside money and takes on two American actors in the lead roles. Alex Nicol plays the writer Mark Kendrick, an actor who ironically would go on to direct his own horror film, The Screaming Skull (1968), just a year after Hammer set forth into producing their own. Although initially Nicol appears to embody an unremarkable, square-jawed nice guy, the actor does manage to imbibe his character with some more nuanced layers as things pickup speed. This aspect is seen when it comes to playing out his struggle as a writer, and as he attempts to keep a grasp on his moral compass as matters spiral out of his control. However, Hillary Brooke as the femme fatale Carol becomes the real star of the show. The fake English ‘croquet on the lawn at six darling’ accent is not perfect by any means—and slips from time to time—however, it is fairly well pronounced, and better than to be expected for a low-budget feature. While Brooke will not be winning any awards for her dabbling in elocution lessons, her steamy presence and strong allure do manage to raise the stakes to some degree. Although the plot forces things along at full steam ahead it becomes easy to accept how Mark, and the other male characters surrounding her, can become so wrapped up in her existence in a relatively such a short space of screen time. British actor Sid James steps in as the lamentable husband Beverly. The actor went on to become one of Britain’s most-loved comedy actors through his prolific presence in the successful series of Carry On films—yet here he is playing a strictly straight role. For those associated with his work in the aforementioned series, it is difficult—given his larger than life, almost cartoonish presence in those films—to imagine this is the same actor. Those associated with the cheeky chappie, who became a name for his cocksure, double entrendre-laden wit in the Carry On classics, will witness a much more subdued actor here. For this reviewer, this aspect became somewhat problematic—James was an actor who became heavily typecast in the more successful stages of his career, yet his presence in House Across the Lake remained of curiosity value nevertheless. Regardless of this, James does summon a degree of sympathy in his character.
House Across the Lake is not the most perfect example of noir by any stretch of the word. It does however carry a certain atmosphere and elicits tension at the right moments. What is lacking is a strong British feel, and although the scene is set in England, the film looks and feels very much like an American noir—albeit without a large budget. Some attempt is made to assert the British-ness in the set design and aspects of the plot, but this at times feels slightly strained. Move this aside, however, and you get some interesting characters and a fairly absorbing thriller that comes delivered with a scorpion sting in its tail. Brooke’s performance in the final scenes also demonstrates a strong closing statement, however the last act does leave some ambiguity—which was often the case in older, low-budget features.
Fans of Hammer Horror will want to take note that Jimmy Sangster is credited here as a second unit director. Sangster, who went on to become a leading scriptwriter for the studio—penning many of the classics including Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (1958)—, also went on to direct his own horror features in the seventies with Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Horror Of Frankenstein (1970).
This Network DVD presents the feature in a decent digital transfer. It is fair to say it has its age related flaws, but you have to consider the low-budget nature of the piece, and the fact that decent print materials may have been difficult to come by. That said, this is an adequate release for a film of this nature. The sound, in line with the print, also demonstrates minor damage but nothing substantial. Many of the pre-horror Hammer features have been ignored in favour of their popular genre based cousins, and therefore it is important these films are restored and put out there for distribution. Hammer played such an important part in British Film history, keeping the legacy alive is a very worthy cause. The disc also comes with a gallery of promotional stills.
For all fans of Hammer Films this is a worthy addition to the collection. Although not as memorable as the horror pieces of later times, it is valuable for those who want to become familiar with the studio as a whole unit. Hammer were producing these features for almost twenty years before hitting on success, and for those with an interest in the studio’s origins, House Across the Lake provides a worthwhile example.