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Monday, 14 February 2011


The essential documentary
Hammer remain the most successful British film studio in history - they made films that showed in every corner of the world and although they made movies in many genres - comedy, thriller, drama, grand period adventure, fantasy, military thillers - it is with horror movies that they are best remembered.

Hammer though had no grand plan concerning horror and indeed they stumbled into the genre by accident and by doing so took Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman back from Hollywood and reinvented them for an whole new audience. The horror tales had largely been born in Britain and thanks to Hammer Movies we took our gothic heritage back and then mixed them in with gallons of impossibly red blood and a liberal splattering of heaving bosoms and sent them back out around the world, raking in a fortune for the UK film industry.

 It was ironic given that it was the SF movie boom of the late Forties/early Fifties that killed off the original horror boom, that it should be the SF genre that would show Hammer that horror was the way forward for the studio. in 1955 Hammer adapted the hit TV series Quatermass Experiment. Hammer knew that they could be more graphic than the BBC had been allowed to and they purposely strove to obtain am X (the equivalent of 18) certificate in order to market the film as, The Quatermass Xperiment. The film was a huge surprise hit and the BBC cashed in on this by making another Quartermass TV series, which Hammer than produced, in colour, as Quatermass and the Pit. Hammer also started producing another Quatermass movie but when the rights were taken from them they altered the movie somewhat and released the very Quatermass-like X, the Unknown.

""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" From a  BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) report on X-The Unknown.

Both of the Quatermass movies and X-The Unknown followed the typical British boy's own style - they had a very energetic hero and a dynamic storyline. The hero was a no-nonsense scientist who was focused on his work to the point of destruction of both his own life and those around him - this was a very interesting choice of protagonist for the time when heroes were usually cleaner than clean. Hammer's Quatermass was not a million miles away from their version of Baron Frankenstein.

And it was with Frankenstein that Hammer scored their biggest hit to date and ensured that the company would forever be associated with the horror genre. Although the story was in the public domain, Universal Pictures owed the rights to their storyline from their own classic, Frankenstein and more troubling they also had a patent on Boris Karloff's amazing make up design. Hammer knew they could not improve on the classic Karloff look and so they did a clever thing - that altered the focus of the story, turning Baron Frankenstein into the villain of the piece and the monster his helpless victim. And although Karloff will always be associated as the definitive monster, Hammer's version was much more logical. No longer were there comical bolts holding the head on - Hammer's monster looked like the victim of a car crash.

'I tried to play the monster as an ill-coordinated, childish creature.' Christopher Lee.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) grossed more than 70 times its costs. The crtics hated the film but cinema fans loved it. It was massive in the UK and even bigger in the US and indeed everywhere the film played it returned healthy profits. And even though Hammer still continued with other genres they became known as, The Hammer House of Horror.

It was only natural that after their success with Frankenstein that Hammer should turn to that other great horror icon, Dracula.  And this time the studio turned in the definitive screen version of the story and Christopher Lee's Dracula was far more effective than Bela Lugosi's version.

"The uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster cannot quite obscure the remnants of a good horror story, though they do give one the gravest misgivings about treatment. [...] The curse of this thing is the Technicolor blood: why need vampires be messier eaters than anyone else? Certainly strong cautions will be necessary on shots of blood. And of course, some of the stake-work is prohibitive." From the BBFC report on Dracula.

Dracula was an enormous success, breaking box-office records in the UK, the United States (released as Horror of Dracula), Canada, and across the world. On 20 August 1958 the Daily Cinema reported:
"Because of the fantastic business done world-wide by Hammer's Technicolor version of Dracula, Universal-International, its distributors, have made over to Jimmy Carreras' organisation, the remake rights to their entire library of classic films"

Hammer films now went down the same path as Universal had previously trodden with their original classic monster movies.  Subsequent movies would feature more and more monsters in a bid to make each film more terrifying than the last, and then by the time they did the parodies it was all over. It's the same thing that happened with the western movie.

Hammer were in many ways an exploitation studio and in their latter days they lived up to this, cashing on on any genre that was popular and mixing it in with their horror - The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires brought the then hot kung fu craze into their gothic world. The result is an entertaining movie.

Later Hammer tried one desperate measure after another to shock and titulate. A sequence of lesbian vampire films showed them scraping the bottom of the barrel. Though 1971's Lust for a Vampire, loosely based on the Camilla story is quite good.

Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror is a splendid 90 minute documentary looking at the entire history of Hammer. It is narrated by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (This was the actor's last project before his death)  and is still available on DVD.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

They gave people what they wanted.