Hammer Films is a film production company based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1934, the company is best known for a series of Gothic “Hammer Horror” films made from the mid-1950s until the 1970s. Hammer also produced science fiction, thrillers, film noir and comedies – and in later years, television series. During its most successful years, Hammer dominated the horror film market, enjoying worldwide distribution and considerable financial success. This success was due, in part, to distribution partnerships with major United States studios, such as Warner Bros.
During the late 1960s and 1970s the saturation of the horror film market by competitors and the loss of American funding forced changes to the previously lucrative Hammer-formula, with varying degrees of success. The company eventually ceased production in the mid-1980s. In 2000, the studio was bought by a consortium including advertising executive and art collector Charles Saatchi and publishing millionaires Neil Mendoza and William Sieghart. The company announced plans to begin making films again after this, but none were produced.
In May 2007, the company behind the movies was sold again, this time to a consortium headed by Dutch media tycoon John de Mol, who announced plans to spend some $50m (£25m) on new horror films. The new owners also acquired the Hammer group’s film library, consisting of 295 movies. Simon Oakes, who took over as CEO of Hammer, said: “Hammer is a great British brand – we intend to take it back into production and develop its global potential. The brand is still alive but no one has invested in it for a long time.” Since then it has produced the feature films Let Me In (2010), The Resident (2011), and The Woman In Black (2012).
In November 1934 William Hinds, a comedian and businessman registered his film company – Hammer Productions Ltd. Housed in a three-room office suite at Imperial House, Regent Street, London. The company name came from Hinds’ stage name, Will Hammer, which he had taken from the area of London in which he lived, Hammersmith.
Work began almost immediately on the first film, The Public Life of Henry the Ninth at the MGM/ATP studios, with filming concluding on 2 January 1935. The film tells the story of Henry Henry, an unemployed London street musician, and the title was a “playful tribute” to Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII which was Britain’s first Academy Award for Best Picture nominee in 1934.During this time Hinds met Spanish émigré Enrique Carreras, a former cinema owner, and on 10 May 1935 they formed a film distribution company Exclusive Films, operating from an office at 60-66 National House, Wardour Street. Hammer produced four films distributed by Exclusive:
The Bank Messenger Mystery (1936)
The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (US: The Phantom Ship) (1936), featuring Bela Lugosi
Song of Freedom (1936), featuring Paul Robeson
Sporting Love (1937)
A slump in the British film industry forced Hammer into bankruptcy and the company went into liquidation in 1937. Exclusive survived and on 20 July 1937 purchased the leasehold on 113-117 Wardour Street, and continued to distribute films made by other companies.
James Carreras joined Exclusive in 1938, closely followed by William Hinds’ son, Anthony. At the outbreak of World War II, James Carreras and Anthony Hinds left to join the armed services and Exclusive continued to operate in a limited capacity. In 1946, James Carreras rejoined the company after demobilisation. He resurrected Hammer as the film production arm of Exclusive with a view to supplying ‘quota-quickies’ – cheaply made domestic films designed to fill gaps in cinema schedules and support more expensive features. He convinced Anthony Hinds to rejoin the company, and a revived ‘Hammer Film Productions’ set to work on Death in High Heels, The Dark Road, and Crime Reporter. Not able to afford top stars, Hammer acquired the film rights to BBC radio series such as The Adventures of PC 49 and Dick Barton Special Agent (an adaptation of the successful Dick Barton radio show). All were filmed at Marylebone Studios during 1947. During the production of Dick Barton Strikes Back (1948), it became apparent that the company could save a considerable amount of money by shooting in country houses instead of studios. For the next production – Dr Morelle – The Case of the Missing Heiress (another radio adaptation) – Hammer rented Dial Close, a 23 bedroom mansion beside the River Thames, at Cookham Dean, Maidenhead.
On 12 February 1949 Exclusive registered “Hammer Film Productions” as a company with Enrique and James Carreras, and William and Tony Hinds as directors. Hammer moved into the Exclusive offices in 113-117 Wardour Street, and the building was rechristened “Hammer House”.
In August 1949, complaints from locals about noise during night filming forced Hammer to leave Dial Close and move into another mansion, Oakley Court, also on the banks of the Thames between Windsor and Maidenhead. Five films were produced there: Man in Black (1949), Room to Let (1949), Someone at the Door (1949), What The Butler Saw (1950), The Lady Craved Excitement (1950). In 1950, Hammer moved again to Gilston Park, a country club in Harlow Essex, which hosted The Black Widow, The Rossiter Case, To Have and to Hold and The Dark Light (all 1950).
In 1951, Hammer began shooting at its best remembered base, Down Place on the banks of the Thames (later known as Bray Studios). The company signed a one-year lease and began its 1951 production schedule with Cloudburst. The house, virtually derelict, required substantial work, but it did not have the construction restrictions that had prevented Hammer from customizing previous homes. A decision was made to remodel Down Place into a substantial, custom-fitted studio complex. The expansive grounds were used for almost all later location shooting in Hammer’s films, and are a key to the ‘Hammer look’.
Also in 1951, Hammer and Exclusive signed a four-year production and distribution contract with Robert Lippert, an American film producer. The contract meant that Lippert and Exclusive effectively exchanged products for distribution on their respective sides of the Atlantic – beginning in 1951 with The Last Page and ending with Women Without Men (AKA Prison Story, 1955).It was Lippert’s insistence on an American star in the Hammer films he was to distribute that led to the prevalence of American leads in many of the company’s productions during the 1950s. It was for The Last Page that Hammer made a significant appointment whenthey hired film director Terence Fisher, who played a critical role in the forthcoming horror cycle.
Toward the end of 1951, the one-year lease on Down Place expired, and with its growing success Hammer looked towards more conventional studio-based productions. A dispute with the Association of Cinematograph Technicians, blocked this proposal, and instead the company purchased the freehold of Down Place. The house was renamed Bray Studios after the nearby village of Bray and it remained as Hammer’s principal base until 1966. In 1953, the first of Hammer’s science fiction films, Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways, were released.
Hammer’s first significant experiment with horror came in a 1955 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s BBC Television science fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment, directed by Val Guest. As a consequence of the contract with Robert Lippert, American actor Brian Donlevy was imported for the lead role, 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 big hit, and led to the popular 1957 sequel Quatermass 2 – again adapted from one of Kneale’s television scripts, this time by Kneale and with a budget double that of the original: £92,000.In the meantime, Hammer produced another Quatermass style horror film, X the Unknown, originally intended as part of the series until Kneale denied them the rights.At the time, Hammer voluntarily submitted scripts to the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) for comment before production. Regarding the script of X the Unknown, one reader/examiner (Audrey Field) commented on 24 November:
“Well, no one can say the customers won’t have had their money’s worth by now. In fact, someone will almost certainly have been sick. We must have a great deal more restraint, and much more done by onlookers’ reactions instead of by shots of ‘pulsating obscenity’, hideous scars, hideous sightless faces, etc, etc. It is keeping on and on in the same vein that makes this script so outrageous. They must take it away and prune. Before they take it away, however, I think the President [of the BBFC] should read it. I have a stronger stomach than the average (for viewing purposes) and perhaps I ought to be reacting more strongly.”
In the late 1960s, with the release of artfully directed, subtly horrific films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the studio struggled to maintain its place in the market. It responded by bringing in new writers and directors, testing new characters, and attempting to rejuvenate their vampire and Frankenstein films with new approaches to familiar material.
While the studio remained true to previous period settings in their 1972 release Vampire Circus, their Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, for example, abandon period settings in pursuit of a modern-day setting and “swinging London” feel. These films were not successful, and drew fire not only from critics, but from Christopher Lee himself, who refused to appear in more Dracula films after these. Speaking at a press conference in 1973 to announce The Satanic Rites of Dracula, then called Dracula is Dead… and Well and Living in London, Lee said:
“I’m doing it under protest… I think it is fatuous. I can think of twenty adjectives – fatuous, pointless, absurd. It’s not a comedy, but it’s got a comic title. I don’t see the point.”
The film indulges the turn toward self-parody suggested by the title, with some humour appearing in the script, undercutting any sense of horror.
Hammer films had always sold, in part, on their violent and sexual content. After the release of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969), audiences were increasingly able to see more explicit gore, more expertly staged, in relatively mainstream films. Night of the Living Dead (1968) had set a new standard for graphic violence in horror films. Hammer tried to compete as far as possible – Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), for example, features a scene where the Baron kicks a discarded human brain – but realised quickly that, if they couldn’t be as gory as new American productions, they could follow a trend in European films of the time, and play up the sexual content of their films.
Hammer Films had commercial success with some atypical output during this period: the film version of the ITV situation comedy series On the Buses (1971). This was popular enough to produce two sequels, Mutiny on the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973) where Hammer returned to making film spinoffs as with PC 49 and Dick Barton.
The Karnstein Trilogy
In the Karnstein Trilogy, based loosely on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s early vampire novella Carmilla, Hammer showed some of the most explicit scenes of lesbianism yet seen in mainstream English language films. Despite otherwise traditional Hammer design and direction, there was a corresponding increase in scenes of nudity in the films during this era. The Karnstein Trilogy comprises:
The Vampire Lovers (1970), featuring Polish actress Ingrid Pitt
Lust for a Vampire (1971)
Twins of Evil (1971)
These were written by Hammer newcomer Tudor Gates, who was recruited at about the same time as Brian Clemens (creator of The Avengers). Clemens wrote two unusual films for Hammer. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) featured Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick, and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974), which Clemens also directed, were not successful at the time, but have become cult favourites. The experimental films of this period represented an attempt to find new angles on old stories, but audiences did not seem interested.
In the latter part of the 1970s, Hammer made fewer films, and attempts were made to break from the then-unfashionable Gothic horror films on which the studio had built its reputation. Neither The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a co-production with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers which attempted to combine Hammer’s Gothic horror with the martial arts film, nor To the Devil a Daughter (1976), an adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel, were successful. Hammer’s last production, in 1979, was a remake of Hitchcock’s 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes, starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd. The film failed at the box office and almost bankrupted the studio.
In the 2000s, although the company seemed to be in hibernation, frequent announcements had 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.
On 10 May 2007, it was announced that Dutch producer John De Mol had purchased the Hammer Films rights via his private equity firm Cyrte Investments. In addition to holding the rights to over 300 Hammer films, De Mol’s company plans to restart the studio. According to an article in Variety detailing the transaction, the new Hammer Films will be run by former Liberty Global execs Simon Oakes and Marc Schipper. In addition, Guy East and Nigel Sinclair of L.A.-based Spitfire Pictures are on board to produce two to three horror films or thrillers a year for the U.K.-based studio.
The first output under the new owners is Beyond the Rave, a contemporary vampire story which premièred free online, exclusively, on Myspace in April 2008 as a 20 x 4 min. serial.
The company began shooting a new horror/thriller film in Donegal in 2008, backed by the Irish Film Board. The film is titled Wake Wood and was scheduled for release in the United Kingdom in the Autumn of 2009.The film was produced in collaboration with the Swedish company Solid Entertainment, makers of the vampire film Frostbitten, which pays homage to the Hammer vampire films among others. It was given a limited UK/Ireland theatrical release in March 2011.
In the of summer 2009, Hammer produced in the U.S. The Resident, a thriller directed and co-written by Finnish filmmaker Antti Jokinen and starring Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Christopher Lee. It was released in the US and UK in March 2011.
In 2010, Hammer, in partnership with Overture Films and Relativity Media, released Let Me In, a remake of Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In.
In June 2010, it was announced that Hammer acquired Wake, a script by Chris Borrelli for an action feature to be directed by Danish filmmaker Kasper Barfoed.
In February 2012, the Hammer and Alliance Films adaptation of The Woman in Black was released. Daniel Radcliffe stars as lawyer Arthur Kipps. Jane Goldman wrote the film.
In April 2012, the company announced it was to make a sequel to the The Woman in Black titled The Woman in Black: Angels of Death. Hammer and Alliance Films recently announced two more films going into production during 2012, entitled The Quiet Ones and Gaslight.