It has been dismissed over the years as cheesy, cheap and laughable but, as has been the case on many occasions, Hammer Films have had the last laugh. They boast a back-catalogue that is to horror movies what The Rolling Stones’ discography is to rock music. Fifty-nine years after the release of their first horror movie proper (The Quatermass Xperiment), Hammer’s films have survived scrutiny and re-evaluation and have now attained National Treasure status. Moreover, in terms of sheer importance, the Hammer films were some of the most influential of the past half-century. The ripple-effect of their imitators cashing in on their success would beget the careers of some of the biggest names in Hollywood today.
And yet since 1984 Hammer has been a dormant entity, existing only in the memory: a pile of ashes, a cape and a signet ring waiting to be reanimated by the crimson, jugular discharge of some poor, unfortunate traveller…or an experienced CEO who knew what he was doing. Finally though, after three decades of false starts it seems that Hammer has awakened once more…
Now that we have passed through the Gorno period of onscreen teenage disembowelment and young people being stitched together into human centipedes, it requires a bounce of the imagination to understand just how vomit-raising the sight of Peter Cushing dropping a brain into a glass jar – in gaudy Eastmancolor no less – was to global audiences in 1957. The Curse of Frankenstein drove its flag, stake-like into the ground, and nothing was ever the same again. National outrage, moral panic and unimaginable box-office returns followed immediately.
Before Curse, horror movies were a withering presence in world cinema. The glory days of Universal’s classic horror cycle had been spoofed into insignificance. Threats to life and limb were represented by creatures from outer space, robot monsters and giant ants, watchable in 3-D, Percepto and Emergo-vision. There was nothing in this B-movie, teenager-appeasing saga that was ever going to damage your soul.
Hammer had been making movies since 1934, mainly quickly-filmed movie versions of radio hits like Dick Barton: Secret Agent. With their version of TV hit The Quatermass Experiment in 1955, Hammer tasted blood and liked it. The public did too and lapped up the follow-ups, X-The Unknown and Quatermass 2. These were all shot in cinema-verite style and in black and white. For The Curse of Frankenstein, colour was deployed, pointedly and with deliberate controversy in mind. This movie and the following year’s Dracula (also in colour) took those flaccid and lifeless Hollywood staples, by now stooges for Abbott & Costello to mock, and brought them terrifyingly to life. Never before had blood flowed to such primal effect. When Peter Cushing hammered a stake through Carol Marsh’s heart, cinema audiences genuinely fainted in their seats.
Hollywood arrived with several suitcases full of cash – Sir Christopher Lee maintains that the head of Universal Pictures told him that Dracula’s success would save the studio from bankruptcy. With major studio distribution in place, Hammer released dozens of popular horror movies. An exploitation company and proud of it, they saw no shame in giving the public what they wanted – Frankenstein gave birth to six sequels; Dracula eight. However, they broadened their remit with a surprising number of Saturday-Morning Swashbucklers like The Devil-Ship Pirates and Sword of Sherwood Forest, and had colossal non-horror hits with One Million Years BC and She.
Their 1960s gothic horrors were a key influence on many creative teens who would soon pick up cameras themselves. Johns Carpenter and Landis were devotees, as were Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese, who said of Frankenstein Created Woman, “The implied metaphysics (of the isolated soul) is close to something sublime.” Scorsese and Dante both became protégés of Roger Corman, who bankrolled their early respective efforts Boxcar Bertha and Piranha. Corman’s was the sincerest form of flattery. The success of Hammer emboldened him to create his gaudy Edgar Allen Poe series (which gave an early role to a young Jack Nicholson) and his company American International Pictures became a serious challenger to Hammer’s position as Master of Horror.
Horror pictures were comparatively cheap to produce and proved an irresistible source of quick profit, and so further imitators cropped up like Lippert Films, Tigon and Amicus, with their famous portmanteau chillers. As was the case with the entire British film industry after the Sixties stopped Swinging, box office revenue started to dry up and the Hollywood money disappeared back across the Atlantic. Hammer’s budgets were slashed, and their lucky-streak vanished.
At the end of the 1960s, revolutionised by the violence of world events, the Hollywood Studios had stopped paying other people to make horror movies and had started doing it themselves. Independent smash hits like Night of The Living Dead had led to huge successes like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Suddenly, Hammer looked cosy and vintage. Christopher Lee in a suit and cape was no longer the source of blind terror it once was, and dropping him into modern-day Chelsea to stalk hippies in kaftans in Dracula AD 1972 proved an unwise development for everyone, save connoisseurs of uniquely terrible films.
Not even Britain’s mid-1970s appetite for Kung-Fu could save Hammer. To further illustrate that the gulf between American and our home-grown terror could not have been wider, The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires – “Hammer Horror! Dragon Thrills!” – was released in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Baffling and bewildering box office success with the film version of On The Buses couldn’t save Hammer and after one last swing (and a miss) with To The Devil…A Daughter in 1976, the game was up.
Hammer Horror movies were by now a late night TV staple, and it was television that partially redeemed the studio. The early 1980s saw the arrival on our screens of Hammer House of Horror and later Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense. Both series featured Hammer stalwarts behind and in front of the camera. Many episodes became cult classics, especially The House That Bled To Death, which did for children’s birthday parties what Psycho had done for motel showers.
The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense finished in 1984 and the chapter marked ‘Hammer Production’ closed shut. The company director Roy Skeggs spent the next three decades trying to raise funds for new productions but to no avail. In the early 1990s, Richard Donner announced his involvement in a slew of Hammer remakes, none of which ever saw the light of day. A consortium led by Charles Saatchi bought Hammer in 2000 with a view to making new films, but again, none appeared. “Hammer Rises From The Grave” was a headline that surfaced sporadically every few years, but few took seriously the idea that Hammer would ever again produce another film. The coffin lid was, it seemed, nailed shut forever.
Simon Oakes, at that time the managing director of Crossbow Films, had noticed that despite the absence of any actual licensed product, Hammer was still, he claimed, “part of the vernacular. From David Mellor calling Chelsea’s defense a Hammer House of Horrors, to a New York party where the women were described as Hammer heroines…I started getting more interested.”
In 2007, Oakes and his colleague Mark Schipper, collaborated with the Exclusive Media Group to raise over $50million to create new movies under the Hammer banner. The progress was slow and deliberately meticulous. Eschewing the hubris of hype and fanfare, Hammer released “building block” films like Wake Wood (2011) and the innovative MySpace movie Beyond The Rave (2008). The Resident (2010) saw the first appearance by Sir Christopher Lee in a Hammer movie for over thirty years.
Released in the same year, Let Me In was a box office disappointment; doomed by its close proximity to the original and universally adored Let The Right One In, which had only been released two years previously. However, it received critical praise, citing Cloverfield director Matt Reeves’ intelligent direction and the fine performances from Chloë Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Stephen King called it “The best American horror film in the last 20 years.”
The Resident and Let Me In both opened with a new ‘Hammer’ logo which skilfully incorporated posters from the old movies, rather like the self-referencing Marvel Studios logo. It demonstrated Hammer’s pride in its lineage and its determination to treat its past with the respect it deserved. Disparate rights complications in the past meant that Hammer’s back catalogue was often ill served by cheap and shoddy market representation. To counter this, Oakes oversaw the digitally enhanced and restored Blu-ray release of several old Hammer classics, and in partnership with Random House, Hammer has published new horror work, tie-ins and re-imagined back-list classics.
After a careful build-up, Hammer hit the bulls-eye in 2012 with The Woman in Black, based upon Susan Hill’s classic ghost story. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (in his first film since the final Harry Potter movie), The Woman in Black was a box office sensation, grossing $127million world-wide and becoming the most successful British horror movie ever released. Moreover in a nice nod to Hammer’s tabloid-bothering controversy of old, it became the most complained-about film of all time in the UK, thanks to its unduly lenient 12A certificate.
Hammer’s legacy has matured well over the past half-century. The films made during their Golden Years, between 1957 and 1969, are some of the most beautifully created British movies ever made. Their juxtaposition of lush romanticism and dark malevolence created a body of work that is now as timeless as the work of The Brothers Grimm. Their directors and craftsmen were pioneers in the art of spinning gold from straw, restricted as they were by ever-tightening budget constraints. Plus, in contrast to the juvenile American horrors being made at the same time, Hammer films featured actors of the highest calibre: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Bette Davis, Andre Morell, Freddie Jones, Joan Fontaine, Rupert Davies and of course, Michael Ripper.
With their library now established as one of the most cherished in UK film history, Hammer is pressing on towards a confident future. Following The Quiet Ones, released this month, Hammer will first produce the sequel The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (currently shooting), then the Victorian thriller Gaslight, in which Jack The Ripper aids the police with a murder inquiry. For the first time since the 1970s, in can be said of Hammer Films – to paraphrase the original title of The Satanic Rites of Dracula – that it is alive and well and living in London. Not dead but liveth.