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A beginner’s guide to Hammer Films

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Hammer Films.

Hammer Horror 101

In the BBC documentary Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood, which looked at the influential work of U.K. production house Hammer Films, Martin Scorsese had this to say about the company: “When I was 11 or 12, and went with groups of friends to see certain films, if we saw the logo of Hammer Films we knew it was a certain kind of film. A surprising experience, usually… and shocking.” Such is the legacy of Hammer Films to this day. It’s often revered as a DIY workhorse, a small production company that operated with limited budgets yet managed to shape and influence the direction of horror cinema for years to come and—for a while, anyway—promote a steady roster of talent to screens across the U.K. and North America.

Hammer Films is most often credited with reviving gothic horror. The horror genre throughout the 1940s and into the ’50s was known for churning out films focused on atomic monsters. Many films readily exploited the moral and cultural anxieties that came with the rise of atomic warfare, creating giant, mutated monsters that terrorized cities. Hammer, on the other hand, found great success in the atmospheric dread of the gothic. Within the gothic aesthetic, there’s a focus on supernatural terrors. But atmosphere in particular is key, with huge, cavernous castles with hidden tunnels; seemingly inexplicable movement of objects; and a general sense of foreboding, with fog and rain accentuating the mood. Hammer, with its focus on creating eerie atmospheres while weaving stories of supernatural mystery, helped propel gothic horror back to popularity.

Before there was Hammer Films, though, there was Exclusive Films. Enriqué Carreras, who had been steadily buying up cinemas in Hammersmith, London in the early 20th century, found a business partner in William Hinds, also known by his amateur stage name Will Hammer. The two shared an interest in cinema and entertainment (or at least the potential financial rewards of such a business), and started up a distribution company called Exclusive Films. William’s son, Anthony Hinds, would later become integral to the rise and prominence of Hammer Films as a producer and screenwriter, but it was his father’s production work in the ’30s that allowed Hammer to become what it was. By the time Exclusive became Hammer, the company was a veteran presence in the industry, even if the name wasn’t synonymous with horror films until the late ’50s.

Hammer Productions Ltd. was registered in 1934, and the first distributed film came the following year with The Public Life Of Henry The Ninth, a broad comedy about a street performer that catches a big break—a far cry from the terrors that the company would become famous for a decade or so later. In its earliest days, Hammer, like many film distribution companies, dabbled in a variety of genres. They released everything from Sporting Love, an adaptation of the comedic stage play by Stanley Lupino, to The Mystery Of The Marie Celeste, released in the U.S. under the name Phantom Ship, a strange thriller about the disappearance of a ship’s crew starring Bela Lugosi. During WWII, the company seemingly stopped producing and distributing films.

It wasn’t until after the war that Exclusive/Hammer was brought back from the dead. From a sociological standpoint, there was perhaps a renewed interest in escapist entertainment. In the BBC documentary mentioned above, Anthony Hinds says as much, stating that the cultural climate at the time was one of consuming entertainment no matter the genre, form, or medium. People were going to the movies to see movies; it didn’t matter what was playing. This paved the way for Hammer to churn out films on a modest budget at a remarkable pace—in the range of five to nine films a year, all written, directed, and produced in-house, a monumental undertaking for such a small company. The actual name Hammer was re-registered in 1947 as a production subsidiary of Exclusive, and it was shortly after this that Hammer started to build significant momentum.

Intermediate Studies

In the early ’50s, Hammer found great success with a simple formula: adapting popular radio plays as films. Some of the first films Hammer produced during this successful run in the ’50s were based on the Dick Barton radio series, a program that aired every weeknight and drew anywhere from 15 to 20 million listeners a night at its peak. Hammer produced three films in its version of the Dick Barton series: 1948’s Dick Barton, Special Agent, followed by Dick Barton At Bay and Dick Barton Strikes Back. The series was immensely popular, but was limited to three films after its star, Don Stannard, died in a car crash. One of the more critically revered Hammer films from this time was its adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles, which featured Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing (more on him later) as a pensive, curious Sherlock Holmes, surely one of the more memorable portrayals of the detective in film.

While many of Hammer’s earliest productions were thrillers and mysteries, by the late ’40s and early ’50s, there were hints of the horror direction that the company would take. In 1949, Hammer released The Man In Black, an adaption of the BBC radio program “Appointment With Fear,” which told a dark story of collusion and betrayal. It’s perhaps the earliest example of Hammer’s distinct horror stylings, though the formula wouldn’t be improved upon and perfected with machine-like consistency until a bit later. Hammer also released Room To Let, an offbeat horror film where a Victorian family comes to suspect that the lodger they’ve taken on is actually Jack The Ripper.

Things changed significantly for Hammer when it moved into a gothic mansion (cheaper than using a studio) called Oakley Court on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire. It was here that Hammer explored the horror genre to a fuller extent, producing and releasing the previously mentioned The Man In Black and Room To Let, but also Someone At The Door, What The Butler Saw, and The Lady Craved Excitement.

Shortly thereafter, Hammer would begin to streamline its production process, moving into perhaps its most famous location, Down Place, also known as Bray Studios, once again located along the Thames in Berkshire. Considering the economic restrictions Hammer was under, Down Place was perfect for its needs. Hammer could remodel and restructure to cater to specific films, and the team often reused sets in order to save money. At the time, it was not unusual for the company to shoot two films back-to-back, using the same cast, sets, and crew. The film that shifted the tide for Hammer and kicked off a lengthy run of commercial success was 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment. Based on the 1953 television series of the same name, Hammer dropped the ‘E’ in “Experiment” in order to draw attention to its X Certificate (or rating) upon release. The film was hugely successful for Hammer, and found an audience due not only to the popularity of the TV show, but also the series’ sequel, Quatermass II, which was released at the same time as the Hammer film. The film’s popularity signaled a shift in the company’s focus; while finances were dwindling across the British film industry, Hammer was able to take advantage of its relatively modest production costs and, timed with a growing audience appetite for B-movies, release a string of horror films and sequels. Shortly after the release of The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer produced a handful of shorts and musicals that capitalized on the use of color film, an innovation that would benefit its upcoming foray into the horror genre.

Advanced Studies

Integral to the success of the horror films that would follow the release of The Quatermass Xperiment was the fact that Hammer had assembled a collection of actors that audiences were willing to engage with, no matter the premise or genre of the film. Audiences came to see, among others, respected and revered actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Ingrid Pitt, following them through a number of sequels because they were trusted marquee attractions. Cushing and Lee alone appeared in more than 20 Hammer films together, representative of the studio’s ability to forge a palpable chemistry among its stable of talent. Thus, Hammer productions not only boasted aesthetic cohesion, reviving the supernatural and atmospheric elements of gothic horror and relying on much of the same crew from one film to the next, but also exuded an indelible charisma due to the star power of its actors.

The studio’s first major horror hit was The Curse Of Frankenstein, released in 1957. Directed by Hammer Films stalwart Terence Fisher and starring soon-to-be Hammer regulars Cushing and Lee, the film was a monumental update on not only the Mary Shelley novel, but also the original film from Universal Studios. Another aspect of the appeal of The Curse Of Frankenstein was that it boasted an entirely different creative vision from the Universal Studios film—and by necessity, as Universal threatened to sue Hammer if they used a similar story, or even Boris Karloff’s famous makeup. So Hammer stuck to adapting the novel, which was part of the public domain; the result is an astonishing vision of science and innovation gone wrong.

Realizing that the public was craving such horror films—ones that were dissimilar in tone and aesthetic when compared to the Universal classics of the ’30s and the atomic monsters of the ’40s—Hammer stuck to the script and produced numerous gothic-tinged films at a staggering pace. 1958’s Dracula, later retitled Horror Of Dracula and once again starring Lee and Cushing, was a huge success, and to this day boasts one of cinema’s finest vampiric performances. Lee revolutionized how vampires would be viewed in horror cinema. Rather than a stuffy, aristocratic portrayal, Lee’s Dracula was brimming with sexuality and virility. He wasn’t just a threat because he was undead; he was a threat because he was seductive, his lips—dripping red with blood and in glorious Technicolor—an image of sensuality and longing. Such sexually evocative images would go on to influence Hammer’s later productions as well, especially in regards to Ingrid Pitt and her work in The Vampire Lovers.

Just as classic record labels like Motown were able to “brand” themselves as aesthetically cohesive, Hammer Films built itself into a horror behemoth with the release of The Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula. Along with other productions like 1959’s The Mummy and 1962’s The Phantom Of The Opera, sequels to the immensely popular Dracula and Frankenstein films were tapped for production. Working with a familiar and tight group of writers, actors, and crew, Hammer churned out a bevy of successful sequels (of varying quality, it should be added): the great The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958); the sluggish but wonderfully strange Frankenstein Created Woman (1967); a series of rote Mummy sequels; and one of Hammer’s finest achievements, 1966’s Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, which is wonderfully dark in its portrayal of the Dracula mythology.

Hammer also had plenty of stand-alone titles. The Curse Of The Werewolf, which was set in Spain and used sets leftover from a failed film about the Spanish Inquisition, launched the career of Hammer Films mainstay Oliver Reed. The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll is a narrative mess, but also a morally complex retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, while The Gorgon turns to Greek mythology and repurposes the myth of Gorgon for a horror audience, once again reuniting Cushing, Lee, and director Terence Fisher. Hammer also got more sexually explicit with the Karnstein trilogy of vampire films, showing racy lesbian scenes and significant nudity. The Vampire Lovers, from 1970, might be the strongest film of the bunch, due to its balance of eroticism and tight screenwriting. Pitt is pure sexual energy throughout the film, her portrayal of Carmilla/Mircalla not unlike the seductive turn by Lee as Dracula. Throughout the film, she feasts on a number of buxom women, the camera consistently lingering on the breasts of Carmilla’s victims.

Alongside its early ’70s horror productions, Hammer also produced a series of popular cave-girl films, of which One Million Years B.C. remains the most culturally significant, if only because it helped Raquel Welch become one of the era’s most notable sex symbols. The famous promotional poster used for the film, which features Welch in a fur bikini, became a best-selling pinup and is perhaps most famous for covering Andy Dufresne’s escape tunnel in The Shawshank Redemption.

Though Hammer Films helped define horror from the ’50s through to the early ’70s, it wasn’t long before the genre started to change. The arrival and mainstream popularity of intense (and, in the eyes of critics and audiences, perhaps more artful) horror films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) made the B-movie productions of Hammer look dated and insignificant, especially to American audiences. Thus, while Hammer Films continued to produce and distribute films throughout the ’70s, the company was essentially on hiatus and had lost much of its original appeal. It produced two largely forgettable anthology television series in the ’80s, called Hammer House Of Horror and Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense. Many of the episodes, especially in the former series, held on to the gothic atmosphere that made Hammer such a success, but when packaged into an anthology, and largely removed from the chemistry of the studio, that inventive, infectious passion couldn’t be found.

Hammer is currently going through a revival of sorts, dabbling in a variety of film projects, but still chiefly geared toward horror audiences. It produced the lackluster 2011 Hilary Swank thriller The Resident, and also had a hand in releasing Let Me In. Hammer’s most notable recent release is The Woman In Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, a film that feels like a classic Hammer film even if it doesn’t necessarily deliver quite like the company it used to. An atmospheric, well-shot horror film, The Woman In Black is at least a sign that inside the corpse that is Hammer Films, a heart still beats, refusing to die once and for all.

The Essentials

  1. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
    This is where it all started. A paranoid thriller about the spread of disease and the incompetency of institutions that still resonates today.
  2. The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)
    Cushing turns in a superb performance here as the passionate and stubborn Victor Frankenstein, while Lee somehow manages to be both vulnerable and monstrous as The Creature.
  3. Horror Of Dracula (1958)
    Lee reenergized the character of Dracula, turning him into a handsome, seductive, sexual threat. This film forever shaped the thematic possibilities of the genre.
  4. The Vampire Lovers (1970)
    Bold in its portrayal of female sexuality, it made Ingrid Pitt a cult hero.
  5. The Woman In Black (2012)
    A film in touch with the classic gothic elements that made Hammer such a welcome breath of fresh air within the horror genre so many years ago.