"Extra Cheese" icon applies to PREHISTORIC WOMEN only
past January Anchor Bay re-released most of its Hammer Collection
titles on DVD, repackaged as double-disc "Limited Edition"
sets. These are the exact same discs that have been on the market
in stand-alone form since the late 1990s. Since these double
features sell for less than the single disc editions, Hammer
fans who neglected to pick up certain titles in the past can
now do so without forking over an inordinate amount of cash.
It must be said, however, that some of these films represent
the Hammer filmography at its nadir — or at a sub-par level
at best. Such is the case with two of the studio's productions
from 1966, Prehistoric Women and
The Witches. (The latter was released
in the U.S. as The Devil's Own, frequently showing up
on TV during the '70s). There's really no theme or actor to
tie the two films together. Perhaps they were paired for the
Limited Edition because they both happen to feature really bad
dance sequences... (Actually, they played together as a theatrical
double-bill in the States.)
is one of the all-time lamest Hammer films, which isn't surprising
since it was written and directed by Michael Carrerras (The
Lost Continent). It's a low budget attempt at an Edgar Rice
Burroughs-type fantasy adventure with plenty of scantily-clad
gals on hand to keep the male audience interested. It fails
miserably to either thrill or titillate. In Africa, safari bwana
David Marchant (Michael Latimer) is tracking a wounded leopard
when he's captured by a mysterious native tribe called the Kunaka.
For violating their sacred territory, the tribe's high priest
(Bari Jonson) cruelly forces David to endure a lengthy floor
show by an African dance troupe. (The producers were obviously
determined to get the absolute maximum out of the dancers they'd
hired.) The white man, however, sternly endures this torture
— imagine the worst Oscars telecast routine, only with an African
theme — and so is led into a cave and brought before a life-sized
statue of an albino rhinoceros to be put to death. Just as he's
about to be perforated with spears David touches the rhino statue's
horn... and with a bolt of lightning all the blacks are frozen
immobile, like statues themselves. It's as if time has stopped
for everyone except him. Then a cave wall slowly splits open
to reveal a lush, verdant jungle (actually a cheesy indoor set)
just beyond the fissure. So what does Great White Hunter do?
Does he run back the way he came, escaping the Kunaka and returning
to base camp? No. He immediately plunges through this inexplicable
dimension door and into the jungle.
Here he's startled to encounter a shapely
blonde woman in an animal skin bikini, who bites him on the
arm when he tries to address her. She runs away in fear; as
David follows he and the girl are captured by a band of spear-carrying
Amazons, all Caucasian brunettes dressed like ancient barbarians.
The prisoners are then taken to another soundstage, the cave-village
where rules the evil Queen Kari (and more than half the entire
movie takes place). David discovers that he's stumbled upon
a primitive society totally dominated by dark-haired warrior
women, who are served by enslaved blondes. (I suppose if there
were any redheads they'd represent the Middle Class... These
"prehistoric" maidens just happen to speak perfect
English, too.) What few men remain alive have degenerated into
near brutedom and toil in a dungeon-like cavern at the orders
of their raven-tressed masters. (Just what they toil at
all day isn't explained.) David obviously represents the freshest
bit of man-meat anyone's seen in a while, so Kari (Dr.
Jekyll and Sister Hyde's Martine Beswick) wants him as her
sex slave. Not exactly the worst of fates, one would think,
but David is repulsed by her cruelty and has already fallen
in love with the blonde girl he met in the jungle, Saria (Edina
Ronay). He stoically resists Kari's physical charms and is punished,
thrown into the dungeon with the rest of the men. Later, spurred
on by Saria, our hero pretends to bow to Kari's commands and
serve her willingly. (Ol' Dave doesn't appear all that repulsed
when the horny queen jumps his bones...) Eventually, after a
couple of really awful dance numbers by the blonde girls — and
a solo "mating" dance by Beswick, who manages to pull
it off despite the music — David leads the blonde women and
the men in a revolt to overthrow Kari's evil rule. He also turns
out to be the "Stranger" who it is said will fulfill
the Prophecy of the White Rhino, the utterly ridiculous framing
device that attempts to explain everything.
It's every bit as stupid as it sounds. Instead
of conjuring the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider
Haggard, Carreras and Co. succeed only in making a shoddy Monogram
jungle oater that shows a bit more midriff and is in color instead
of black and white. Everything in the film looks phonier than
a $3 bill. With the exception of Martine Beswick, with her exotic
looks and panther-like grace, none of the women seem in the
slightest "prehistoric", especially given the mascara
and false eyelashes. The dance numbers really grate once you
stop laughing. Thank God there are at least a few cheesy chuckles
to be had, otherwise this would easily rate a "1"
score. Ultimately, though, the film is neither exploitative
enough — it'd rate a mild "PG" today — or (unintentionally)
funny enough to be worth your time. Definitely for Beswick
Middle-aged teacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine, Oscar-winning
actress for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion)
suffers a nervous breakdown after fleeing an African mission
school in the midst of a tribal uprising. She returns to her
native Britain and, after recovering her mental health, takes
a job as the headmistress of a school in the tiny English village
of Haddaby. This fresh start and change of scenery would seem
the ideal epilogue to her harrowing experiences on the Dark
Continent (where she'd been threatened by a voodoo witchdoctor).
Haddaby is peaceful and picturesque, stocked with salt-of-the-earth
citizens seemingly content with the unhurried rythyms of rural
life. All, of course, is not as it seems.
Slowly, Miss Mayfair discovers a significant portion of
Haddaby's population to be pagans. (That the village church
has lain derelict for decades would seem an obvious sign that
something's askew.) Not unfamiliar with the trappings of the
occult, she comes to suspect that a virginal 15-year old girl
— one of her students — has been chosen as a ritual sacrifice.
Conveniently the girl's boyfriend is suddenly struck gravely
ill by means of a voodoo doll, putting him out of the picture.
Gwen shares her suspicions with Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), wealthy
eccentric and pillar of the community, who has an interest in
the metaphysical. With proof of her theories just out of reach,
the once friendly townsfolk take an increasingly hostile attitude
to the new schoolmarm...
Well-acted, with intelligent dialog (screenwriter Nigel
Kneale also wrote the scripts for the Quatermass films), The
Witches really only has one flaw... but it's a big one.
It's dull. Deadly dull, in fact. After a strong opening
in Africa the film takes much too leisurely a time in getting
up to speed again — which, in truth, it never quite succeeds
in doing. The plot, adapted from a novel Fontaine bought the
rights to (and then brought to Hammer), presents things as a
mystery which we the audience have long since figured out. The
climactic ritual — the villagers of the coven spastically rub
fruit all over themselves and do a goofy dance before the sacrificial
virgin is to be slain — is underwhelming to say the least. You'll
be checking your watch throughout this film, I assure you.
mentioned, these are the same discs Anchor Bay first released
some years ago. Only the exterior packaging is new. Being the
older DVD, Prehistoric Women's letterboxed
(2.35:1) transfer is not 16x9 enhanced, while that of The
Witches (1.66:1) is. A/V quality isn't spectacular but
is quite good, on a par with AB's other "second-tier"
Hammer Collection releases. (Prehistoric
Women obviously suffered the most from Pan & Scan broadcasts/VHS
editions). In addition to their respective theatrical trailers,
both titles share the same two black and white American TV spots
(20 and 60 seconds) that touted the Prehistoric
Women/Witches double bill.
Each DVD also contains a World of Hammer featurette narrated
by Oliver Reed: for Prehistoric Women
it's "Lands Before Time" (also seen on the Lost
Continent disc); "Wicked Women" for The
Witches. Keep in mind that, because it's a pre-2000 DVD,
you have to flip Prehistoric Women
over to Side B to access the extra features. 2/05/04