When offered the choice to review a new book on the history of Britain’s legendary Hammer film company, I jumped at the chance – I’ve had a soft spot for cheesy horror films for a number of years, and have often wanted a broader knowledge of the Hammer House of Horror’s Gothic classics.
Sadly, and with no disrespect intended to the book, this really wasn’t the place for me to start.
Let me begin by saying that this book is hardcore. Focusing not on the actors and familiar faces of the franchise but upon the production crew, it boasts an insane attention to detail, being at once meticulously researched and footnoted. Rather than re-analysing familiar material, author Wayne Kinsey has assembled a legion of veteran crew members from every corner of the team to expound upon their experiences of the fast pace of day-to-day work in the Hammer House of Horror, assembling a collection of commentaries, memories and interviews.
The final result is 16 chapters of meticulous research covering the silent majority involved in a film’s production – scriptwriters, production, locations and sets, makeup, wardrobe, music, special effects, continuity and even extras and stuntmen. Not content to cover every aspect of the production team, Kinsey has stitched together a comprehensive image in each chapter of how that department functioned, both individually and as part of the whole, in the creation of internationally popular films over long hours on a meagre budget. A history of events is supported and filled out by crew interviews and anecdotes, sharing their knowledge of how what should have been tacky, throwaway flicks reached such surprising quality.
“Bernie Built a jungle, with various sections on a revolve, so that when you walked through one section you could just revolve it to get to another part of the jungle. A brilliant idea. At the premiere I sat next to Lord Mountbatten of Burma and he thought he knew where it was. He kept saying, ‘I know that place.’ I hadn’t the heart to tell him it was Shepperton!” p. 267
Details revealed by this first-hand information were interesting for me, but will fascinate grognards. Biographical information such as Art Directors with a history including service in Army Camouflage & Special Devices, creating implements for use by the infamous Special Operations Executive, sheds light on the complex network of compromise and teamwork that made good films excellent.
It is hard not to be entertained by some of their thoughts and memories, such as worries concerning a glass tank not withstanding water pressure being eclipsed by a monster refusing to float the right way up. Crew complaints of greed among the higher echelons straining already low budgets sit alongside tales of a £17,000 1:1 replica of a Spanish galleon spoiling its launch-day by proving immovable before promptly capsizing. Crew who have passed away are remembered and illustrated by friends and family, enhancing the text’s intimacy.
Chapter One lists the complete background story of Distribution between the studio’s creation in 1934 through to the TV shows of the 1980s, describing licensing issues on both sides of the Atlantic, changes of position, leadership and direction, costs, profits, poster art and legal chicanery. Chapter Two doesn’t simply describe the Hammer House studio at Bray, but is an in-depth look at the different locations and stately homes and their impact upon the productions they hosted. Staff who came and left in each location are listed, their positions described – not satisfied simply with photography, the author has included maps (both sketched and printed) and blueprints, as well as a series of images taken during set construction and filming.
The images scattered liberally throughout Unsung Heroes are particularly worthy of mention. A huge library of over 1,000 behind the scenes photographs have been assembled and much like the rest of the text, are not suggestive of a casual attempt on Kinsey’s behalf. Not only have photographs been included, but costume sketches, annotated maps, blueprints, musical scores, storyboards, cartoons, signed photographs and makeup designs can be found enriching every chapter. Pages filled entirely by wordage are rare and while the majority of these are monochrome, nearly 50 colour images form a centrepiece.
Many of these photographs aid the text’s atmosphere of first-hand experience, typically showing the cast and crew during filming though including many which show a more personal touch through staff parties and socialising. Images such as Christopher Lee collecting his lunch as Frankenstein’s Monster or special effects illusionist Ian Scoones’ pet skull “Francoise”, as seen in Captain Clegg (1961) and in his current home. Alongside interviews and stories from the crew, the result is a surprisingly intimate view of material that risked being over-exposed but feels fresh when viewed from this more intimate view. Kinsey’s work genuinely feels more like an oral history than a reference text.
These images help to break up what could have been impenetrable walls of text. In truth, massive amounts of information are crammed into every page and the text is perhaps too small, occasionally making it difficult to read – yet if Unsung Heroes were much bigger, you would need a wheelbarrow to ferry it about. Several inches thick, 488 pages long and measuring at 265x900mm, this is hardly a book to take on the bus with you – doubly true in that you will need direct light to avoid straining your eyes. For those with strong arms and manly wrists, 500 limited edition hardbacks have also been published and priced at £35 (another tenner on top of the paperback’s RRP), though early reports from the internet suggest that an advertised “unique number” is often not filled in.
This is the fourth Hammer text penned by Wayne Kinsey following The Bray Studios Years, The Elstree Studios Years and A Life in Pictures alongside fanzine The House That Hammer Built. Many may be wondering if there is really much new ground to cover (Kinsey himself raises this in the introduction prefacing the book).
I find that the author’s approach has lent a more intimate feeling to heavily trodden ground – approaching the work from the cast and crew’s perspective through their stories, memories and interviews has gifted to the work a much more intimate feeling. Though Kinsey could be accused of flogging an undead horse, I am unsure. I feel that his experience is clear, as is the value of it regarding a work of this nature. The sheer amount of material involved in the creation of this tome could have overwhelmed another author, yet Kinsey maintains a structured pace and logical pace.
It is sometimes hard to wonder if the book is a little too completist – interviews with just about everyone involved have been included and it is hard to wonder how relevant some were to production and how much impact they would ultimately have. Exploration of recycled props is unlikely to enthral every reader.
In the end, my review will have very little impact on anybody’s desire to buy a book that will likely be very polarising. While there is no doubting the time that has gone into this work, or the devotion that has driven its creation, I can say without reserve that this is not a casual undertaking and not to be attempted by the faint of heart. Fans hoping to gain a glimpse of the humanity behind the monster mask will certainly be satisfied – passers-by will be entertained at points but often left wondering what kind of person needs to know so much about a triangular candelabra appearing in four different films.
Hammer Horror: The Unsung Heroes is not light, coffee-table reading but a snarling weight of ink and paper, comprehensively researched on a niche subject. Those with a casual interest will struggle to maintain interest. Serious HammerHeads will not care what I think – you probably made space next to your Christopher Lee alarm clock as soon as you discovered Wayne Kinsey had lined up another publication.
Those of you tidying away plastic fangs and fur bikinis from Unsung Heroes‘ release party will be excited to know of a fifth Wayne Kinsey publication focused exclusively on Hammer locations to be published next Autumn.