October 1, 2016

Death by Hammer

The first movie that I remember watching is the 1961 MGM film “The Pit and the Pendulum” with Vincent Price.  My brothers and sisters (all older) were picking on me, so my mom and dad let me stay up and watch the film with them on television and eat striped shortbread biscuits while my brothers and sisters all had to go to bed. I have been hooked on horror since then.

For those of us who love horror, there was clearly a golden age.  1930 to 1940 was the decade of elegance in horror, the decade of Universal.  It was the decade of James Whale, the decade of Tod Browning, Boris Karloff’s intimidating sad monster and Bela Lugosi’s charismatic Dracula. Most of us also include Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured “Wolf Man” from 1941. Universal basically created the horror film genre during this decade before it all fell apart in the 1940’s and 1950’s, devolving into self-parody in the “Abbot and Costello Meet…” films.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Abbot and Costello but seeing Lon Chaney give a sad, empathetic performance as Larry Talbot opposite these two is almost painful to watch.

For almost the next two decades horror, for the most part, languished, drown in an ocean of B movies, giant bug movies and low or no budget “sequels” to Universal’s great monster movies, the horror genre seemed doomed. Periodically a gem would emerge from the coal, such as the aforementioned “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Thing (From Another World)” with James Arness or the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Then came a revelation. Then came salvation. Then came Hammer! Hammer films, which started releasing movies in 1934, was not originally known as a “Horror” studio.  The horror genre itself was still relatively unknown outside of German Expressionist horror such as the films of F. W. Murnau (“Nosferatu”, “Faust”) and Robert Weine (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, “The Hands of Orlac”). Instead, the studio, founded by cinema owner Enrique Carreras and vaudevillian William Hinds, half of the duo of Hammer and Smith, focused on period pieces and historical dramas such as “Henry the Eighth”, “The Private Life of Henry the Ninth” (both in 1935) and “The Mystery of the Mary Celeste” (1936).

The studio, like many of Great Britain’s movie studios, took a hiatus during World War II, releasing no films to the public between 1937 and 1945. The sons of the founders, James Carreras and Anthony Hinds, who had both joined the studio, went off to fight the Axis along with most of the rest of the young men of their generation. Even well-heeled American studios such as Disney and Warner Brothers focused most of their artistic endeavors to anti-Nazi propaganda films during this time, so a small, independent studio like Hammer had no choice but to temporarily close their doors at this time of deprivation and hardship.

When James Carreras and Anthony Hinds came home from the war, they rejoined the studio and set out to make Hammer a world-class studio. With limited resources and no stable of stars, however, Hammer was limited to short subjects and documentaries until 1947 when they released “Death in High Heels”. During the 1950’s, Hammer focused almost exclusively on cheap, easily-made “noir” films such as “The Black Widow” (1951) and “Murder by Proxy” (1954). Because of a distribution agreement with American producer Robert Lippert, many of these films featured American leads. For the 1952 film “The Last Page”, however, Hammer (unbeknownst to them at the time) made their first major step in returning elegance to the horror film when they hired director Terence Fisher.

For horror film fans, the studio’s first big step in that direction was their purchase of the rights to the BBC television “Quatermass” serial, and produced a big-screen adaptation of the first of these, which they called “The Quatermass Xperiment”. The series focused on Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group. Although ostensibly science fiction, the series contained enough horror elements to earn a special place in the hearts of horror fans the world over.

Quatermass also has the distinction of bringing science fiction from the realm of kiddie shows like Captain Video and into an adult realm. Despite a few earlier films like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, it really marked the beginning of what is now called “serious” science fiction, distinguishing it from the giant bug and monster from another planet films that overtook the genre throughout the 1950’s. The film enjoyed huge success in the UK, becoming half of the highest-grossing double bill of 1955, and was so successful that it spawned two Hammer sequels, “Quatermass 2” and “Quatermass and the Pit”. The series also cemented Bernard Quatermass in the public consciousness as one of Britian’s great science fiction heroes, along with Dr. Who.

The other thing that the film did was to give the studio the much-needed influx of cash to really ramp up their production capabilities, leading to the first of the full-color “Hammer Horrors”, “The Curse of Frankenstein” in 1957. This was the first pairing of duo Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his misbegotten creature. One hitch that the studio encountered, however, was the monster’s make-up.  The iconic make-up created by Jack Pierce for Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, with the flat head and bolts in the neck, was still the property of Universal, who refused to allow Hammer to use it for their film. This led them to create their own unique look for the monster, which has become iconic in its own way.

I remember when I saw this film on television, being disappointed in the different look of the creature, until I was drawn into the story of the film, and finding myself fascinated and horrified by the small touches, such as the creature’s mismatched eyes,  that indicated his piecemeal creation. The film focuses much more on the creator rather than the creature, casting Victor Frankenstein as the true evil of the film. Deciding to give his creature a worthy brain, Frankenstein lures a distinguished professor to his home and pushing him down a staircase, killing him so that Frankenstein can use the brain. Apparently unfamiliar with the effects of trauma on the brain, however, Frankenstein doesn’t anticipate that the brain would now be irreparably damaged, causing the monster to be a single-minded creature of vengeance and terror.

Playing a mute monster, however, wasn’t Lee’s idea of a terrific career move. Apparently, on the first day of shooting, he stormed into Peter Cushing’s dressing room, shouting “I have no lines!” As the story goes, Cushing responded “You’re lucky… I’ve read the script.” But Lee gradually accepted the role that he was playing, and seeing what his acting abilities could bring to it, lines or no lines, and it is said that he would often entertain the rest of the cast by singing beautifully while in the full monster makeup. The film received a suitable “X” certification, which meant appropriate for viewing only by those over the age of 16. The critics, for the most part, found the film inappropriate for viewing by anyone; critical comments included “Depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema”, “disgusting” and “horrendous”.  The writing was on the wall, however. Despite (or maybe because of) the critical reception to the film, it grossed more than ten times its production cost of£75,000 pounds.

Almost immediately, Hammer began production on the next film that would cement it as the premier horror studio for the next decade or more:  “Dracula” (1958, titled “The Horror of Dracula” in the US). The film, like “Curse of Frankenstein”, was again presented in bloody Technicolor, and reunited the team of Peter Cushing (Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (Dracula). Like the earlier film, “The Horror of Dracula” was, at best, kissing cousins with the Bram Stoker novel. One interesting side-note on the film:  when it was originally released in 1958, it was given an “X” certificate, only appropriate for those over the age of 16, while, upon it’s re-release in Great Britain in 2007, it was given a “12A” rating, appropriate for those over the age of 12.

Lee and Cushing would again be united in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959), Hammer’s “The Mummy” (1959), “The Gorgon” (1964), “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” (1965), “She” (1965), “The Skull” (1965), “Scream and Scream Again” (1970), in separate segments of “The House That Dripped Blood” (1971), “I, Monster” (1971), “Dracula 1972” (1972), “Horror Express” (1972), “The Creeping Flesh” (1973), “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973) among others, making them, perhaps the second most identifiable horror duo next to the redoubtable Abbot and Costello.  The two also bookended the “Star Wars” saga, with Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in the first trilogy and Lee playing Count Dooku in the second.

Throughout the sixties, Hammer continued to lead the horror genre, with numerous sequels to their Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as created their own versions of the Mummy, the Wolfman and Mr. Hyde, and sequels to those. As the sixties became the seventies, however, and these old monsters and formulae started to lose their appeal for mass audiences, Hammer began to tighten the budgets on their films and rely more heavily on blood and, eventually, nudity for ticket sales rather than well-told stories. Ultimately, however, with more and more of the large, well-heeled studios starting to churn out horror films, Hammer could no longer compete in the market. “To the Devil… A Daughter” (1976) starring Richard Widmark as an American occult novelist trying to rescue a young girl from a group of Satanists led by excommunicated priest Father Michael (Christopher Lee) would become the last of the “Hammer Horrors”. 1979 would see the release of the final Hammer film, a comedic reinterpretation of the Alfred Hitchcock film “The Lady Vanishes” starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd.

But, like Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, and Karis the mummy, it appears that the great studio of 1960’s horror may be “not quite dead”. After many years and many owners, the Hammer film library and name finally went to the Dutch conglomerate Cyrtle Investments, the group behind Big Brother, which finally began producing films under the Hammer banner once more.  2010 saw the release of Hammer’s first feature horror film in over 30 years with “Let Me In”, a generally well-made and well-accepted remake of the Danish vampire thriller “Let the Right One In”. With the most well-known stars in the film being Chloe Moretz and Elias Koteas, the film coasted to moderate success on the success of its superior Danish predecessor and the American popularity of vampires in seemingly all forms of media.

They followed that in 2011 with “The Resident”, starring Hilary Swank and Jeffrey Dean Morgan also found Hammer reunited with one of its great old names, one of the stars who made the studio’s name in horror to begin with: Christopher Lee in the role of August.  The film follows the old suspense stand-by plot of “landlord stalks and terrorizes pretty new tenant”.  Also in 2011 came “Wake Wood” starring Aidan Gillen and Eve Birthistle. This film, made in Ireland, marked Hammer’s return to British horror. The film focuses on a grieving couple whose daughter was killed by dogs, when an occultist (Timothy Spall) offers to perform a ritual with them that, he says, will bring their daughter back for three days. As the review on the website eatmybrains.com says, “things go badly”.

What may ultimately earn Hammer its place at the horror table in the twenty first century, however, is “The Woman in Black”, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds, due for release in the US on February 3, 2012 and in the UK a week later.  The film follows a young lawyer (Radcliffe) as he leaves London to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman and discovers that the village is being terrorized by the ghost of a woman who was unable to save her son from drowning. The DVD/home video revolution is another thing that is helping Hammer with its comeback. The film “Wake Wood”, for instance, which had no theatrical release in the US is enjoying a moderate amount of success in the states on DVD. As a fan, I can only say “Welcome back, Hammer, to the world and to the world of horror”. Also, as a fan, I can only hope that Hammer learned its lessons from its earlier rise and fall, and won’t make the same mistakes again.  In other words, Hammer, please do not bring us “The Blood of Wake Wood”, “The Satanic Rites of Wake Wood” and “Wake Wood Must Die!”



blog comments powered by Disqus

About Randal Schaffer

Randal Schaffer has written 1 post in this blog.

  • http://twitter.com/mpatton62 Matthew Patton

    It would be great to see the Hammer label up and running again — the films they made in the 50′s and 60′s are still smart and entertaining and a reminder that even modestly-budgeted genre films aren’t required to be an insult to your intelligence.