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Hammer Horror

How a small studio brought new blood to the British horror film

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Enrique Carreras and William Hinds founded Hammer Films in 1932, but it was their respective sons, James and Anthony, who would make its name with the production of Nigel Kneale's BBC series, The Quatermass Xperiment (d. Val Guest, 1955). The success of this film encouraged the young producers to seek out another fantasy production, and the out of copyright Frankenstein seemed an obvious choice.

The resulting film, The Curse of Frankenstein (d. Terence Fisher, 1957), was the most important horror film since Universal's Dracula (US, d. Tod Browning, 1931). Its contemporary impact was immense; it was the first horror film in colour, and its critical reception was savage. Nonetheless, the public flocked to see it, and Hammer followed it up with its natural successor, Dracula (d. Terence Fisher, 1958).

Fisher's direction and Jimmy Sangster's scripts were the driving force behind Hammer's initial flourishing. Fisher's eye for gothic romanticism and the overtly sexual themes he implied with his visuals broke new ground, and his productions of The Mummy (1959), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and his masterpiece, Dracula, are now widely considered superior to the 'classic' Universal movies they were inspired by.

If Fisher was the artist, Sangster epitomised the company's acute commercial awareness, writing Taste of Fear (d. Seth Holt, 1960), a Psycho (US, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) rip-off intended to cash in on that film's box office success. This initiated a series of black and white psychological dramas that ran parallel to Hammer's gothic output, including Maniac (d. Michael Carreras, 1962) and Paranoiac (d. Freddie Francis, 1962) and finishing with The Nanny (d. Seth Holt, 1965).

Hammer's early success would not have been possible without Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the pre-eminent horror film actors of their generation. Their revolutionary performances are most evident during Dracula, in which Lee's innately sexual presence contrasts superbly with Cushing's austere demeanour, and this natural opposition allowed Hammer to use them as ciphers for changing social values throughout their careers.

Interestingly, Hammer wore its Englishness on its sleeve, and by the mid-60s was explicitly locating its gothic horror in idealised Victorian towns, using its quaint country house studio at Bray as the backdrop. The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies (both d. John Gilling, 1966) and The Witches (d. Cyril Frankel, 1966) all possess distinct national traits, but unfortunately, the relatively poor box office of these productions in comparison with Fisher's Dracula - Prince of Darkness (d. Terence Fisher, 1966) led to the company sticking to its Dracula and Frankenstein staples until the early '70s.

In 1968 the studio received the Queen's Award to Industry, and began to draft in new directors like Peter Sasdy and Brian Clemens to revive the company product and continue its success. Sasdy's output is particularly impressive, with his features Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1971) standing up well against Fisher's best work. Hammer's other tactic in this period was to introduce sex, as was becoming popular in the work of European horror directors like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. Roy Ward Baker helmed the first of what would become the 'Karnstein trilogy', The Vampire Lovers (1970). These films also instigated the second great wave of Hammer stars, which included Ingrid Pitt, Valerie Leon and Linda Hayden, all of whom were more flagrantly sexual than Hammer's '60s actresses, such as Barbara Shelly and Jacqueline Pearce.

However, this policy was unsustainable, and by the mid-70s the combined force of US films such as Night of the Living Dead (d. George Romero, 1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (d. Tobe Hooper, 1974) had pointed the way forward for horror. Even in Britain, the work of Michael Reeves, N. J. Warren and, particularly, Pete Walker destined Hammer to an early grave.

Despite ceasing horror film production with To the Devil a Daughter (d. Peter Sykes, 1976), the studio resurrected itself in the early 1980s with the TV series Hammer House of Horror (ITV, 1980-81), featuring several directors and writers synonymous with the company. The demands of small screen production revived much of the atmosphere of Hammer's early period at Bray, and the resultant success of many of these episodes, both artistically and commercially, led to the subsequent Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (ITV, 1984-85).

Hammer's legacy as the most consistent, durable and successful horror film production company of all time is testament not just to the quality of the personnel involved, but also to their tendency to adapt to whatever was the current trend, be it Psycho rip-offs, sexploitation or kung-fu vampires. In 2000, the company came under the new management of Terry Ilot, who has announced that a number of new productions are in the pipeline following the recent upsurge in British horror with the likes of 28 Days Later... (d. Danny Boyle, 2003) and Dog Soldiers (UK/US/Luxembourg, d. Neil Marshall).

Paul Moody

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