It Haunts Us Still: The Rebirth of Hammer Films

You may be wondering why some of the older fans of horror films you may know (besides just me) seem more interested in The Woman In Black 2, which opens today, than most people should be. On the surface, it’s a follow-up to an earlier horror film that did, at best, okay, coming out in the bleak winter months where most films go to die; a horror film opening as far away from Halloween as possible doesn’t say much in its favor. And in all likelihood, this is not going to be embraced as an instant classic in the US. The British press have already given it a look, and the response is tepid at best.

But the fact that the British are willing to give it a fair hearing should be a clue as to where the interest comes from. It’s like the scene in a good horror film of your choice where the characters come across a name scrawled on the wall, an old etching into the surface that has conveys no meaning to the reader until it’s too late.

In this case, the scrawled name is in the credits: Hammer. The studio that brought back Frankenstein, the Mummy, and especially Dracula for a new generation, is once again making an effort to be at the forefront of horror films.

For fans of genre films, and horror films in particular, Hammer Films holds a cachet forged in the last century, casting an illuminating shadow over writers and filmmakers covering a wide swath that includes the likes of Stephen King, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese.  And much like other entities with their names scrawled on the wall for the unwary to find, it too has a long and surprisingly deep history.

For one, when the films that made Hammer what it was were lensed, the studio was already nearly 20 years old. Founded in 1935, the studio had a number of productions released to an international market, including The Phantom Ship which starred Bela Lugosi, and Paul Robeson’s Song of Freedom, all of which did modest box office overseas while keeping theaters packed back in the UK. In fact, considering the total output over 80 years of existence, only about one film in three could be classified as “horror,” with the rest of the slate filled with crime dramas and comedies, though as soon as its brand was established, more macabre elements infused later productions.

Surprisingly, the first horror film from an adapted property Hammer made was not one of the creatures it were best known for. Nineteen fifty-five’s The Quartermas Xperement, known in the US as The Creeping Unknown, was an adaptation of a BBC Television serial, The Quartermas Experiment (an ancient ancestor of Doctor Who), about a rocket that comes back from space with an infected astronaut who, if not found in time, could bring death to all humanity. The response the studio received to the film, both in terms of tickets sold and free publicity because the scares the film generated led to the British Board of Film Censors giving the film an ‘X’ rating (hence the film’s title), encouraged the suits to look for ways to cash in on what was a winning formula.

Obviously, there were sequels, but there was the other aspect of the success of Quartermas. The elements of horror that were well received by the public, which the studio found they had a particular knack for, became the hallmark and defining quality that established Hammer Films. So when Hammer looked for a new project and remembered Mary Shelley’s novel, Hammer’s The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) became the start of a grand tradition. The studio’s first color film, it cast Peter Cushing as Victor von Frankenstein, with the monster played by Christopher Lee, a pairing of two actors that will go down as one of the best duos on every screen-coupling best-of lists ever made for all eternity. Indeed, there are very few Hammer films out made where one was not on set with the other.

In fact, the two actors’ most famous pairing came a year later in 1958’s Dracula (US title Horror of Dacula). With Lee as the Count, and Cushing as Professor Van Helsing, one of the most iconic versions of Stoker’s classic novel appeared on screen. The suits soon felt that having the two of them together in every possible pic thereafter was necessary, leading to such films together as The Mummy (with Cushing digging up the mummified Lee),  The Gorgon (with Lee and Cushing as two German professors at odds over a reincarnated monster that turns people to stone) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Cushing playing Sherlock Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville in a version that plays up elements Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t really stressed that much in the novel).

So what made the Hammer formula so successful? There was more than just good casting involved.

1) Classic horror characters/motifs

While Hammer Films did work out a deal with Universal International to ensure that any films made did not tread upon their properties, part of the overall understanding was that Hammer had to be unique enough in its own way so as to not impinge on any rights the Laemmles had claimed when they shot their monsters in the 1930s and ’40s. By having to work only with the essential elements and essences of these creations, elements that existed in the original works, Hammer found new ways to convey what it was that repulsed/drew us to these originally.

2) Lush gothic atmosphere

A Hammer film used many darker hues, not just black and white, to evoke the shadows. The use of color at a time when horror elsewhere was forced due to budget constraints to shoot on black-and-white stock gave them an advantage with audiences. The fact that the films were in color also allowed them an advantage to offer something other horror could not:  blood in its natural (oxygenated) red color, which shocked/drew in the audience in droves. Which ties into…

3) Going where others were too timid to go before

Because Hammer benefitted from receiving the disdain of the British Board of Film Censors, they continued to go as far as it could, which meant relishing in other elements of the gothic movement. This meant that in addition to the standard aspects of the genre, such as longings for things lost, and dread of the unknown, there was the stirring of arousal, which Hammer played up as much as it could. From the chemise-flaunting vampires in The Brides of Dracula to The Vampire Lovers playing up the lesbian themes from its original source material, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, Hammer knew what its loyal fans wanted, and it was willing to give it to them. (When it decided to really play up the sex, gothic tropes be damned, they gave us the classic One Million Years B.C.!) And loyalty paid off as the audience got, in addition…

4) A shared universe

Long before Marvel interconnected all its films, there were shared connections between the series of films that Hammer produced. Cushing would play Victor Von Frankenstein in five more films with “Frankenstein” in the title (making Hammer more cognizant of how the name should be applied than most of the American audience), while Lee would appear as Dracula in seven more films (eight if you count his cameo in The Magic Christian). In addition to these films that spanned the 1950s through the ’70s, the three films of the Karnstein trilogy and the unmet promise of the cycle of films that would have resulted out of Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (which did not go into production, as soon after the film’s release in 1974 the studio faced financial hardship) showed that Hammer was willing to give audiences an ongoing cycle, a longer narrative to follow.

Sadly, the glory days of Hammer could not live forever like Dracula. The same pressures that shook up the old guard studios in the 1960s and ’70s impacted Hammer as well, while at the same time, tastes started to shift. In many ways, the same trends that led to artists reacting to prog rock with punk led to new filmmakers deciding on more stripped-down and raw horror after the Hammer high water mark. Films such as Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were inevitable in an effort to move on to the next thing; with the full studio treatment in Technicolor having run its course, audiences that were younger and wanted horrors that emerged from their own frightening experiences (such as Vietnam and resistance to civil rights).

One has to remember Hammer for what it did for audiences in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s:  it was a major bridge between the classic horror of the Universal films from the 1930s and ’40s, and the start of the modern horror films of the 1970s and ’80s. Had it not been there, much of the horror film genre from the early days would have been relegated strictly to late-hour TV airings (more likely than not interrupted by gags from “horror hosts” before and after commercials). Likewise, an argument can be made that without Hammer, we might not have had a George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, or John Carpenter, or the ones we got would not be the ones we know today. By playing in the era it did, it kept the genre from being thought of as shoddy and cheap, the work of no-budget producers, thus saving it from giving such fare an association from which it might take ages to recover from.

Not only did the genre survive thanks to Hammer Films, but so did the studio. After years of laying fallow, the studio and its assets were acquired in 2007 by John de Mol, Jr., one of the founders of TV production company Endemol (as in Big Brother and The Voice), who announced that Hammer was going back into overseeing production of new films as well. So far, we’ve gotten, among other horror offerings, Beyond the Rave (which premiered on MySpace), Let Me In (the remake of the Swedish film Låt Den Rätte Komma In) and the first Woman in Black.

And it’s the fact that the new film is a follow-up that’s of the most interest. If Hammer is going to give us more follow-ups and interconnected films the same way it did during its heyday, then we are indeed seeing a return to older practices from the studio. A series of films tied to The Woman in Black set in different periods, showing how timeless evils are capable of inflicting long-term pain, could become a signature motif for them the way Dracula had been, as the studio returns to how things used to be done at Hammer.

Some of the things, at least; we may not get deep purples and reds in every shot, and there are too many impulses to keep horror films to a PG-13 rating these days, but if we can get more of what made Hammer what it was, then there will be a few folk out there that will be happy to see a return of the old fiend — er, friend.

About James Ryan 117 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…