Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Heath Holland On...Hammer Horror

by Heath Holland
Fear will freeze you when you face…Hammer horror!

Let’s talk about iconic horror studios. There’s no denying that Universal is the all-time master of the classic horror film; that studio was the birthplace of the most famous monsters ever to grace the silver screen. The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon aren’t just the names of motion pictures; they’re also the names of screen monsters that you know even if you’ve never watched any of the films. The legacy of Universal and horror stands unmatched even to this day, and it probably always will.

However, if Universal horror had a younger, sexier, British sibling, that sibling’s name would be Hammer. The horror made by Hammer (I don’t mean the album Too Legit to Quit) was successful because it came along at just the right time during the mid-1950s when a new generation of monster fans were craving classic creature stories with new, more titillating elements to push the boundaries of the censors.

Hammer has had a hold on me since I first watched one of their films. I had stumbled across 1974’s Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and instantly fallen in love with the aesthetic and atmosphere. There was something about the swashbuckling tone, the beautiful location filming and incredible sets that grabbed me then and still hasn’t let go. There are good Hammer films and there are bad Hammer films, but there’s no denying that they all seem to share the same distinct flavor; no one did it quite like they did.
Hammer Film Productions was the brainchild of a comedian named William Hinds, better known by his stage name William Hammer (confession: I’d never heard of him before I researched this week’s HHO. Is he English comedy royalty?). The studio specialized in cheap movies for twenty years before they tried their hand at horror with their big-screen (and X-rated) adaptation of a 1955 TV miniseries The Quatermass Xperiment. The movie was a hit, so Hammer cranked out more horror movies to satisfy the public demand, usually working an X into the title whenever they could. It was horror for grown-ups and Hammer became one of the first studios to tap the adult horror market by gearing their films specifically to audiences who wanted more grown up fare.

When The Curse of Frankenstein debuted in 1957, a formula was established that became the template for most of the successful horror films that would follow for the next 20 years. Carefully skirting copyright infringement of Universal’s Frankenstein, Hammer was forced to make sure that they made a movie that was different enough that they could pass it off as their own idea while still retaining the name recognition of the classic Universal film. It helped that they filmed the movie in color, meaning that all the gory bits were seen in spaghetti-red detail, something which almost no monster movies had done before. The film also was the first to team Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the two leads, Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster, respectively. They’d work together many times in the future.

The following year Hammer returned to the well and filmed their version of Dracula, (retitled Horror of Dracula for American audiences), teaming up Cushing and Lee again as Van Helsing and Count Dracula. That template I mentioned earlier was firmly in place and the money flowed in. Why mess with originality when you could make money by creating movies about monsters that everyone already knew? The next twenty years would see six Frankenstein sequels, eight Dracula sequels, and a trio of Mummy movies, not to mention Hammer versions of other existing film monsters in Curse of the Werewolf, The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Plague of the Zombies. In true exploitation style, Hammer Film Productions chased seemingly every cinematic trend and milked it for all it was worth, almost always using a familiar stable of actors, directors, and sets with a shoestring budget.
All good things come to and end, though, and by the 1970s, Hammer’s shocking gore wasn’t all that shocking anymore, so they leaned on their other strength: sexy sexiness. Movies like The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire played up nudity and lesbianism (neither of which exist in real life) to lure in audiences and let the horror take a backseat to the spectacle. Similarly, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires offer twists on familiar formulas in an effort to engage audiences that didn’t seem all that interested anymore. Jaded audiences wanted to see what they hadn’t seen before; exploitation cinema was at its peak and Hammer tried to accommodate audiences, but they were never really budgeted to offer big thrills like gunfights and explosions. As the ‘70s drew to a close, so did the heyday of Hammer horror. The studio was nearly bankrupt and their movies couldn’t compete with the big-budget films that Hollywood was producing. The era of the blockbusters had begun and quirky, cheap horror would have to go underground.

Hammer survived in a couple of short-lived television series that ran in the ‘80s, and it was referenced on theatrical screens through the works of Tim Burton, who frequently employed aging Hammer actors (Sleepy Hollow is as close as we will ever get to a Hammer film without it technically being Hammer), but no new films were made by Hammer between 1979 and 2008. But there’s good news! Like all good monsters, Hammer came back! A Dutch film producer bought the company in 2007 and the revived company has made six films of varying quality. The most successful are the English-language remake of Let the Right One In, called Let Me In, and The Woman in Black, which starred Daniel Radcliffe. This year saw the release of The Quiet Ones, available at a Redbox near you, and offers a glimpse of what happens when science and psychology attempt to rationalize the paranormal.

What was it that made Hammer so good at what they did? I believe that a big part of what set Hammer apart from the other low budget horror of the time is that Hammer was distinctly British in all aspects. There’s a reserved nature that’s at the core of the films; despite the carnage, chaos, gore, and flesh that appears on screen, the protagonist is usually in possession of a stiff upper lip and seems unfazed by the whole premise. “What’s that you say? The dead have risen from their graves and are descending upon this very village with cudgels and buckets of rotting fish? I’ll put together a strategy as soon as I’ve finished this chapter of Dickens and had a glass of brandy. Do remember to remain calm. We are a civilized people, after all. As Queen Victoria says, keep calm and have a toffee.” There’s a coolness (less like Fonzie, more like an iceberg) that seems to exist in every Hammer production.
The production style itself was unforgettable. England has a rich history that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, so it makes sense that Hammer films are littered with antiques and props that could either have been made last week or could have been belonged to someone’s great-great grandfather. Is that a new chair or is it 200 years old? You can never tell with Hammer. The same timeless beauty translates to all the external shots that Hammer filmed. Hammer frequently returned to the same haunted forest at least once per film, often more. Every horror fan knows that there’s nothing quite as scary as being alone in the woods at night, and Hammer never wasted the opportunity to prove it.

The studio now seems to be taking it slow and watching their film investments very carefully. This is far cry from the time when they put out seven or eight movies every single year, but the upshot of their prolific output from the past is that we now have 163 full-length Hammer films encompassing varying genres (pirate films, adventure films, mystery films), all made in the inimitable Hammer style. Their legacy is huge; the head of American International Pictures, Samuel Z. Arkoff, reportedly tried to run his own studio as an American version of the English studio. AIP went on to create a HUGE catalog of memorable horror and exploitation films, even distributing some of Hammer’s films in America. Those two companies individually created the most memorable body of exploitation cinema that we have, but who’s to say what would have happened if Hammer hadn’t inspired Arkoff?

Hammer horror isn’t for everybody. The scripts can be inconsistent and padded out, and the scares can be few and far between. The dialogue tends to be “stagey” and deliberate rather than loose and spontaneous. For some this is a deterrent; for others, like me, it’s a huge attraction because it’s unique. In the end, rather than a huge studio with many resources like Universal, Hammer is best thought of as a method of filmmaking that utilized England’s inherent production value as an alternative to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. They did this in a remarkably effective way, and Hammer is the little studio that was able to shock and frighten the entire world.


  1. "Capt.Kronos" was also my gateway to Hammer films. (introduced to me by a friend who is a huge Hammer devotee) It is such a fun movie. I tend to watch it most Octobers now as it has become one of my seasonal tradition films.

    There is something about Hammer, the set design, sound production, general theatricality that Heath alludes to in his piece, or just a combination of it all that I really enjoy. I love the pre-70s Hammer but especially those films directed by Terence Fisher.

  2. As a teen, I was initially drawn to Hammer films because, well, boobs!!!, but as I've matured, I've enjoyed them for their other qualities. Especially the production design and that very English way of delivering dialogue. Plus, any film with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is worth your while.

  3. Maybe this is the time when I say I am from Britain. Home of Hammer horror. And take a small bow

    Great words Heath. You did us Brits proud

    1. Hey, thanks, Dennis! Can you get me an MBE? I won't send it back like John Lennon did. I'd keep it, like Macca kept his, and I'd even come and live in your town. I could be the greatest American ex-patriot on English soil since Terry Gilliam.

      And now for something completely different...

  4. Sorry. Slow reply. I Missed the reply

    You could certainly come over if you could put up with the Rain Heath. It rains a lot here. But it means you can stay in a watch lots of movies. I'll start work on getting you that MBE

  5. Finally catching up on all the posts, great job on this piece Heath! You clearly captured why I love Hammer so much! Happy #ScaryMovieMonth!