Hammer Horror

From Academic Kids

Hammer horror refers to a series of gothic horror films produced from the late 1950s until the 1970s by the British film studio Hammer Films, although it is sometimes also used to refer to other British horror films of the period made by different studios, such as Amicus Productions.

Hammer was founded in London in 1932 by Spanish-born cinema owner Enrique Carerras and music hall comedian William Hinds. Hinds performed as one half of a double-act called Hammer and Smith, from which the partnership took its name. Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Hammer produced numerous very low-budget comedies and crime dramas. Carreras and Hinds brought their sons - Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds - onboard in 1939, and it was they who, in the late 1950s, noted a taste for horror subjects in the post-war public, and moved the studio toward the production of that type of film.

Their first experiment with horror came in the form of a 1955 adaptation of Nigel Kneale's BBC Television science fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment, which was directed by Val Guest. American actor Brian Donlevy was brought in to star, and the title was changed to The Quatermass Xperiment to cash in on the new X certificate for horror films. The film was an unexpectedly bit hit, and led to an almost equally popular 1957 sequel (Quatermass 2) again adapted from a Kneale script originally written for television, this time by Kneale himself. In the meantime, Hammer had produced another Quatermass-style horror film X the Unknown.

At this point, Carreras and Hinds began to look for more horror material that would be cheap to adapt. Realising that no-one had made versions of the classic horror stories - specifically Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy - since Universal Studios' 1930s films and their numerous sequels, they decided on a new Frankenstein film as their next project. To avoid copyright disputes with Universal, Jimmy Sangster's script was based very clearly on the original novel, with an appropriate period setting, and the make-up devised for Christopher Lee bore little relation to Jack Pierce's iconic creation for Boris Karloff. Another innovation, and one which took advantage of the studio's investment in a more expensive colour production, was the amount of gore in the film. Previously, horror films had not shown blood in a graphic way, or when they did it was concealed by monochrome photography. In The Curse of Frankenstein, it was bright red, and the camera lingered upon it.

The film itself is directed excitingly by Terence Fisher, with a lavish look that belies its modest budget. Peter Cushing's performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein, and Lee's as the imposingly tall, brutish monster provide the film with a further veneer of polish.

The film was an enormous success, not only in Britain, but also in the USA, where it inspired numerous imitations from, amongst others, Roger Corman and his American International Pictures. It also found success on the European continent, where Italian directors and audiences were particularly receptive.

The Curse of Frankenstein provided the studio with a template which they stuck to for around the next ten years. In 1958, they produced a new version of Dracula (re-titled The Horror of Dracula in the US), starring Christopher Lee as the Count, and Peter Cushing as Abraham van Helsing, giving the studio another sizeable hit and adding to the criticism expressed over the amount of violence and gore in their films. The following year the company resurrected another Universal monster with a new version of The Mummy, again featuring Lee as the monster and Cushing as his opponent. The same year Lee and Cushing also starred in a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Although Cushing's performance as Sherlock Holmes was well-received, the film itself was not as big a hit as its predecessors.

While The Mummy sequels were relegated to second feature status, the Dracula and Frankenstein films would become a staple for Hammer for the next 10 years. Lee went on to play Count Dracula more times than any other actor. His other Dracula films for Hammer were:

  • Dracula, Prince of Darkness 1966
  • Dracula Has Risen From the Grave 1968
  • Taste the Blood of Dracula 1969
  • Scars of Dracula 1970
  • Dracula AD 1972 1972
  • The Satanic Rites of Dracula 1973

Cushing, for his part, went on to make five more Frankenstein films, including 1959's The Revenge of Frankenstein. Cushing also appeared in Dracula sequels without Lee, such as 1960's Brides of Dracula, in which David Peel played an intriguingly decadent Count.

Other Hammer films from this period include a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde in 1960's The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, Phantom of the Opera starring Herbert Lom (1962) and Plague of the Zombies (1965).

As audiences became more sophisticated in the late 1960s, with the release of films like Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, the studio struggled to maintain its place market. Accordingly, later films in the series seem to turn increasingly to self-parody. Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula abandon period settings in pursuit of a "swinging London" feel, which drew fire not only from critics, but also from Christopher Lee himself.

Hammer films had always featured sex heavily, but both this and the amounts of gore came to be intensified in the studios later films. Most notable were the films of the Karnstein Trilogy based very loosely on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla:

  • The Vampire Lovers, 1970
  • Lust for a Vampire, 1971
  • Twins of Evil, 1972

The first film featured Polish actress Ingrid Pitt, and were somewhat daring for the time in explicitly depicting lesbian themes.

These experiments were, broadly speaking, not successful in box-office or critical terms, although some, includingCaptain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, written and directed by Hammer newcomer Brian Clemens, better known as the creator of The Avengers, later developed a cult following.

In the early 1980s Hammer Films created a series for British television, Hammer House of Horror, which ran for 13 episodes. In a break from their cinema format, these featured plot twists which usually left the protagonists falling to whatever malign form the evil took. These varied from sadistic shopkeepers with hidden pasts, to witches and satanic rites, and were marked by their dark destructive irony, the haunting title music, and by the interingling of horror within everyday people's lives.

A second television series, Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense, was produced in 1984 and also ran for 13 episodes. The stories were originally to have been the same 1-hour length as their previous series, but it was decided to expand them to market them as 'movies of the week'. The series was produced in association with 20th Century Fox and as such, the stronger elements of sex and violence as seen in the earlier series were toned down considerably for US television. Also, every episode featured a star well-known to US viewers (not all of them necessarily American). This series was Hammer's final production of any kind to date.

The Hammer Horror films were generally critically derided when they appeared, although Terence Fisher's direction was often praised. Critics accused them of being over-the-top and gruesome in the manner of the Grand Guignol tradition. In recent years, however, they seem tamer, and have developed a following based on their atmosphere and camp appeal.

In recent years, although the company has seemed to be in hibernation, frequent announcements have been made of new projects. In 2003, for example, the studio announced plans to work with Australian company Pictures in Paradise to develop new horror films for the DVD and cinema market.

Further reading

  • Jack Hunter, House of Horror
  • Ken Hanke, A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series (has good chapters on the Dracula and Frankenstein films)
  • Wayne Kinsey, Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years (riveting, information-packed guide to all the films up to 1967)
  • Randall Larson, Music from the House of Hammer
  • David Pirie, A Heritage of Horror (out-of-print, but a seminal book exploring Hammer and other British horror films critically)

See also

External links


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