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FEATURE – HAMMER, THE LAST NAIL IN THE COFFIN

It never ceases to amaze how short the public’s memory is – particularly in the world of entertainment and film.

Take for instance the once venerated production company Hammer Films. The glory days of the organisation – which was behind some of the most successful film franchises of the 1960s – had, until recently, become not much more than a faded memory. Spoken of with fondness by horror aficionados, such disturbing delights as The Damned (1963) and sublime shockers like Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), were virtually impossible to see other than through the medium of late night television reruns or DVD rereleases by obscure film distributors.

Then in the late 2000s – following years of rumoured resurrection for the company, which made household names of esteemed actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and gave heartthrob bad boy Oliver Reed his big break – a rejuvenated Hammer put a number of new films into production, giving hope to the idea that the studio may be set to recapture their glory days of fifty years ago. However – despite the success of A Woman in Black (2012) – the lacklustre outing, The Quiet Ones (2014), left much to be desired, begging the question of whether the studio really has the strength to reinvent themselves for a twenty-first century audience.

 

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It was a different world back in the 1950s. Audiences with a penchant for shocks had a somewhat limited repertoire available at their local cinema. Though horror had been staple subject matter since the earliest days of Hollywood and genre films had helped save many studios like Universal and RKO from bankruptcy, a lot of the material (most of which was still relegated to production in black and white) depended as much on inference as full, in-your-face viscerals. It would require a company like Hammer which lay outside cinema’s mainstream and, as a result, was more willing to take a gamble, to push what were considered the boundaries of taste and give the public what they had been clearly been secretly yearning for. When The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was released, audiences were both terrified and delighted by its realistic depictions of human surgery and lashings of Kensington Gore splashed across cinema screens in bloody technicolor.

Until they hit upon what would become the cinematic goldmine of gothic horror, Hammer Films had been a relatively smalltime affair. Founded in November 1934 by William Hinds, the inspiration for the company’s name – Hammer Film Productions – came from his own stage persona Will Hammer, which he had in turn taken from the Hammersmith area of London where he lived. For the next twenty years the company turned out a string of moderately successful, though hardly groundbreaking, comedies and noir films, interspersed with the occasional excursion into the darker realms with their big screen treatments of the BBC’s television serial The Quatermass Experiment. The success of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) – the title of which highlighted the ‘X’ in order to cash in on the newly created X film certificate – and its sequel Quatermass 2 (1957), as well as another horror The Abominable Snowman (1957), proved to the studio that there was a desire within certain areas of the cinema-going public for films with a strong horror theme.

It wasn’t until the release of their next film however, that the studio really discovered the niche market with which they would become forever associated – gothic horror. In an attempt to advance their promotion in the American market, the studio had entered into talks with the company Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.) and its head Eliot Hyman. Hyman had recently been approached by two fledgling filmmakers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg (who later went on to found one of Hammer’s main competitors, Amicus Productions) with a treatment they had done for a new film version of Mary Shelly’s Victorian masterpiece Frankenstein. Unwilling to take a chance financing Subotsky and Rosenberg (who, at the time, had only one other film to their credit), Hyman sent the proposed script to a contact at Hammer, and the basis for the studio’s first serious excursion into horror was born.

 

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William Hinds’ son Anthony, now a company director at Hammer, was unsure of the script which bore a close resemblance to Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1934). As a result he commissioned screenwriter Jimmy Sangster to rewrite it, and what would become The Curse of Frankenstein was born. The film featured television star Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, the unhinged nobleman with a creation fixation, and the relatively unknown Christopher Lee as his experiment who resembled a resuscitated car crash dummy. Even before it went into production the proposed film met with sever opposition from the British Board of Film Classification over its nauseatingly graphic violence, whilst the finished work was derided by newspaper critics of the day including Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who called it a ‘routine horror picture’, which ‘should be cold-cuts for old-timers who remember Boris Karloff as the get of Frankenstein’. The public however loved it, and the film went on to be so successful that for many years it held the distinction of being the most profitable film ever produced by a British studio in England.

It was inevitable that Hammer would search for a speedy followup to capitalise on the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, and they found it in another member of horror’s aristocracy – Count Dracula. With a screenplay again by Sangster, and directed by Terence Fisher who had also guided the previous year’s hit, Dracula (1958) – or Horror of Dracula as it was known in America – brought Cushing and Lee together again. This time Cushing was on the side of good as the cross wielding vampire hunter Dr Van Helsing, whilst Lee appeared as his haemoglobin sucking nemesis Dracula. The film was another box-office smash, firmly cementing Cushing and Lee’s reputations as cinema’s new titans of terror – positions which would largely overshadow them for the remainder of their careers. As for Hammer – the two films heralded what was to be the start of their ‘golden age’, in a decade that saw the studio not only awarded the coveted honour of a Queen’s Award for Industry in 1968 in recognition of its contribution to the British economy, but in which it also produced some of cinema’s most influential, atmospheric and fondly remembered films.

During the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Hammer not only revived the baron and count as often as their fans demanded, but injected new life into a veritable who’s who of mythical monsters and ghoulish creatures. Everything from mummies and werewolves to zombies, reptiles and Grecian ladies with bad hair days, lurked amongst the woods of Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire and the faded grandeur of Oakley Court mansion outside Windsor, Berkshire, which frequently doubled as wild and mysterious locales in some superstitious, far-flung region of Eastern Europe.

 

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Though it is for period horror that the studio is best remembered, Hammer also found success with another type of film during this time – the psychological thriller, featuring amongst others the dark and broody Oliver Reed. Reed, who had appeared as the unfortunate lycanthrope Leon in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) – the studios only venture into werewolf territory – as well as several action dramas including The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and Night Creatures (1962), was perfectly cast as Simon Ashby, the edgy and dysfunctional heir to a family fortune in Paranoiac (1963). The style of these films – their story-lines often combining personal drama with psychological horror – appealed to the older teen and twenty-something demographic who formed the core audience for Hammer’s straight horror films. However, though titles such as Fanatic (1965) and The Nanny (1965) – starring Hollywood legends Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis – were popular with cinema-goers and proved lucrative for the studio, it was always to their main staple of horror that they returned.

Following the success of the original Dracula Christopher Lee had been reticent to return to the role for fear of being typecast. As a result The Brides of Dracula (1960), the studio’s follow-up to Dracula, featured David Peel as another vampire nobleman – again with Cushing as Van Helsing – in an exquisite and dreamlike film often considered to be amongst Hammer’s finest. After this Lee did appear as the Count, often with Cushing as his arch nemesis, periodically throughout the 1960s, as well as in a host of other roles for the studio. Unfortunately however, as the decade drew to a close, the hits were becoming less frequent.

 

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There are only so many times that you can revive a vampire or reassemble a manmade monster and by the early 1970s it appeared that the studio was loosing its magic touch. In an attempt to reinvent the vampire count for the groovy generation they tried placing him in contemporary settings with Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). But, despite the latter capturing an atmospheric air of hip 70s London, the films, along with much of their other material, lacked any real bite. By the middle of the decade young film fans – who formed a large part of Hammer’s target audience – were looking for increasingly vicious and graphic violence as offered in American films like the notorious The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Jaws (1975). Hammer – with their homely, European brand of horror – just couldn’t, or weren’t willing to, compete. Having had one of their biggest successes with The Devil Rides Out (1968) based on the story of the same name by author Denis Wheatley, they plundered his back catalogue again for To the Devil a Daughter (1976), a pitiful blend of gratuitous violence, black magic devilry and titillating nudity. The end really had come. Their last production in 1979 – a glossy action comedy based on Ethel Lina White’s novel The Lady Vanishes – was something of a damp squib, despite its stellar cast including Elliott Gould, Angela Lansbury and Cybill Shepherd. The real problem was that Hammer could no longer produce what audiences had come to expect from them – namely fresh, original horror, not seen before. As a result, with the release of The Lady Vanishes, the studio closed their doors – at least where film production was concerned.

However, like their beloved Dracula, Hammer could not be so easily killed off. The film production arm of their business may have folded, but the company saw new potential in the medium of television. In the autumn of 1980 the series Hammer House of Horror – thirteen, fifty minute stories produced by Hammer in conjunction with ITC Entertainment – was shown by ITV. The stories – each a mini, self-contained horror film – featured such popular Hammer subjects as witchcraft, werewolves, and devil-worship in episodes with evocative titles like The House that Bled to Death and Children of the Full Moon. Created by Roy Skeggs – who’d worked as a producer at Hammer – and Brian Lawrence, both of whom were board members of the company before it folded, the show blended atmospheric shocks with graphic viscerals. Featuring a number of the studio’s stalwarts including Peter Cushing and John Carson as well as other well known faces like Diana Dors, Dinah Sheridan and Denholm Elliott, it managed to capture some of the magic from Hammer’s heyday and was a hit with the public and critics alike.

A further series was produced four years later, only this time entitled Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. Produced in association with Twentieth Century Fox and featuring mainly American actors in the lead roles, the shows – which ran slightly longer at seventy minutes – though involving the similar themes of horror and suspense as the earlier television series, lacked their sense of ‘Britishness’ which had always been Hammer’s secret ingredient. Though Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense was popular when aired, and is now viewed with as much affection as the studio’s other output, the show really did bring the curtain down on Hammer and their impressive legacy.

 

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Or did it? Though the studio’s film production had effectively been in hibernation since the end of the 1970s, they had always retained a presence in the industry. Rumours constantly circulated over the following decades that the studio was being revived, until it was acquired in 2007 by the Dutch producer John De Mol. As well buying the rites to their library of over 300 films, he also proved true to his promise that he would develop a series of new horror projects under the Hammer banner. In the proceeding years they have made a number of films – including Beyond the Rave (2008), Wake Wood (2010) and Let Me In (2010), a remake of the Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In (2008) – with varying degrees of success. Their most promising production to date – and the one which came closest to recapturing some of the old Hammer magic – appeared in 2012. An evocative visualisation of the ghost story by bestselling author Susan Hill, The Woman In Black was popular with audiences – though the fact that it starred cinema wunderkind Daniel Radcliffe, freshly graduated from Hogwarts, may have had something to do with its success.

Early in 2014 the studio released The Quiet Ones, an odd mix of personal drama, psychic investigation and haunted house mayhem. Unfortunately the result was something of a confusing and lifeless imitation of the Home Counties hokum which had been done much more effectively with Hammer House of Horror in the early 1980s. Viewing this film you are left with one overriding and perplexing question. Can – or indeed should – Hammer try to resurrect themselves for a whole new generation? Or might it be better for them to simply fade into film history, a happy but dusty memory of a time when everything, including horror, had an innocence which sadly no longer exists.

Cleaver Patterson

 

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About screenandgone (220 Articles)
I'm a journalist and film critic based in London. I'm currently the News Editor of the Flickfeast film website, for which I also review new film releases. As well as this I review films, do features and interviews and cover festivals for various other magazines and on-line publications. I've created the Screen & Gone blog, so that I can share my thoughts and bring a new perspective to films, old and new, which may have passed you by.

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