British film is traditionally known for stuffy, erudite costume dramas and period pieces of the Merchant Ivory variety, and in recent years it’s meant a string of gangster films, thanks to Guy Ritchie and his ilk. I would argue that British film is almost as well-known (if not entirely more so) for its horror and genre cinema of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. One studio in particular churned out an impressive array of these films for nearly 20 years before taking a hiatus. This studio gave us Victorian garb, bombastic music, heaving bosoms, and Technicolor, Day-Glo gore. I’m talking, of course, about Hammer Films, a studio that revitalized British B-movies and horror cinema in general.
While it made a string of Films Noir, swashbucklers, war films, and even some cavemen movies, it is of course best remembered for its sci-fi/horror output. Go figure; I’m a huge fan of Hammer, due mainly to its commitment to explicit gore and lurid sex under the guise of highbrow storytelling. I think it’s a real shame, for as much as these films are remembered and liked, that the names of directors Terence Fisher, Roy Ward Baker, and Freddie Francis, and writers Jimmy Sangster, Anthony Hinds, and John Gilling do not appear on more lists of horror luminaries. For my money, they should be listed right alongside James Whale, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven.
Hammer made so many films, it’d be impossible for me to talk about all of them here (it would make my “Doctor Who for Newbies” posts look like a grocery store pamphlet), but I will talk about some of the films and series of films that I think are important or exemplary and, if they aren’t already, should be immediately added to your list of Halloween viewing.
Very early on, Hammer obtained the remake rights to the Universal horror canon, meaning all the great monsters, characters, and films were fair game for remaking. In nearly every case, the stories were moved to the Victorian age, simply because those were the easiest costumes to make. The first film of this ilk was 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, and Hammer Horror as we know it today was born. There were seven Frankenstein films produced between ’57 and ’74, and all but one of them (the tongue-in-cheek remake, The Horror of Frankenstein) starred Peter Cushing as the eponymous mad scientist.
Curse more or less followed the Shelley novel, though Victor Frankenstein is depicted as petulant and sadistic and generally unsympathetic, something which became a staple of the series. Christopher Lee plays the first Creature, but he’d have a more glamorous role to play the following year. In each of the films, Frankenstein creates another monster and toys with the perversions of science more and more. Of the sequels, I recommend 1959’s The Revenge of Frankenstein for quality and 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman for sheer WTF-ness.
Though Frankenstein came first, it was the bloodthirsty Count that made Hammer an international sensation. From 1958 to 1974, nine such films were produced and most of them starred the aforementioned Christopher Lee as the undead Transylvanian. Dracula (released as Horror of Dracula here in the States) is a mostly-faithful, if stripped-down, retelling of the Stoker novel. It completely excises a few characters, most notably and criminally Renfield, and turns Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) into the film’s well-read hero. Aside from the first part of the film, when he welcomes the doomed Jonathan Harker into his abode, Lee’s Dracula is mainly a boogieman with limited dialogue but a whole lot of ominous sensuality.
The sequel in 1960, given the misleading title The Brides of Dracula, is in many ways a better and more interesting film. A totally unrelated vampire baron, held prisoner by his mother who lures naïve young women to their castle for him to feed upon, is freed by the newest such victim. She escapes and catches up with Van Helsing (Cushing, of course) who escorts her to the girls’ school where she is meant to begin teaching and he begins his search for the monstrous baron. Aside from just having a more complex plot, the notion of Van Helsing as a roving vampire slayer is just way too cool.
Lee returned to the role for the next six entries before deciding enough was enough and chose not to appear in Hammer’s final Dracula movie, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, which was an attempt to merge the series with, of all things, Hong Kong kung fu cinema. It didn’t work. All of the Dracula movies are worth a look, but 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (which Lee plays completely silent) and 1970s Scars of Dracula are my favorite, not leastwise because the latter features Patrick Troughton as Dracula’s manservant, Klove.
QUATERMASS and other sci-fi
Now, I told a bit of a fib earlier when I said that The Curse of Frankenstein was the birth of Hammer Horror. What I should have said was, it was the birth of what we generally consider to be Hammer Horror (Technicolor, Victorian era setting, etc.). The range of scary movies actually began in 1955 with Hammer’s adaptation of the BBC’s groundbreaking 1953 miniseries, The Quatermass Experiment, about a rocket scientist who finds strange, otherworldly things have returned home with the sole survivor of the first manned spaceflight. Hammer’s version, The Quatermass Xperiment (capitalizing on the reputation of the adults-only X film certification) was a pretty enormous hit, though the show’s creator Nigel Kneale objected to the casting of American tough-guy actor Brian Donlevy as Prof. Bernard Quatermass. Donlevy does an okay job, but he’s certainly not the stiff upper-lip Englishman that Kneale envisioned. In the US, where we’d never heard of Quatermass, the title was changed to the much more boring The Creeping Unknown.
Hammer followed the first Quatermass with another, similar sci-fi thriller called X the Unknown, again to make marketing use of the X rating. Made in 1956, X the Unknown was meant to feature the character of Quatermass, but Kneale wouldn’t allow it. It does continue the themes of Quatermass with another scientist investigating a strange occurrence, this time an entity that absorbs and emits high radiation. Another Quatermass film, this time written by Kneale, followed in 1957 as a version of BBC’s TV sequel Quatermass 2. The film, Quatermass II (known by the utterly unremarkable Enemy From Space in America) again starred Brian Donlevy and followed the professor as he investigates strange meteorite activity and a military cover-up. Another terrific and underrated sci-fi thriller, The Damned (or These Are the Damned, as it was called in the USA), was released in 1963. It starts as a street gang drama and becomes about children born immune to nuclear radiation. It’s a very worthwhile film if you can find it.
Finally, in 1968 at the height of Hammer’s power, they made an adaptation of the BBC’s third and final Quatermass serial: Quatermass and the Pit. Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker, Hammer’s adaptation is one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen. Professor Quatermass this time round was played by Andrew Keir (pictured above, right) who was much closer to the TV character than Donlevy had been. It involves the discovery of what is at first believed to be an unexploded German bomb in the London Underground but soon is found to be an ancient spacecraft holding fossilized insectoid creatures that still give off strange psychic energy. The film is a reflection on the nature of Earth and humanity and just who or what is responsible for us being here. It’s kind of like Prometheus, except that it’s good and makes sense. The Quatermass shows and films were an enormous influence on Doctor Who, especially in the early ‘70s, and are very worth tracking down. A fancy new Blu-ray of Quatermass and the Pit came out this year in the UK that I hope hope hope will see a North American release in the near future, because I want all of us to be able to experience its majesty.
THE KARNSTEIN TRILOGY
When the 1970s rolled around, Hammer found that it couldn’t keep up with the explicit gore of American horror films like Night of the Living Dead, but it could up the ante in the sex department. A very risqué, loosely-connected trilogy of lesbian vampire movies were made, adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel, Carmilla, which actually pre-dated Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The films all depict members of the Karnstein family, a very old aristocratic pack of Satan-worshipping vampires and their ample-bosomed daughter, Carmilla (or Marcilla or Mircalla), who likes to get it on with nubile young ladies before making them her vampiric consorts.
The first of these films is 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, in which Ingrid Pitt (pictured above, hovering over a victim) as Carmilla/Marcilla roams Eastern Europe fondling and fanging the pretty daughters of the wealthy and powerful. She eventually sets her sights on Emma (played by Madeline Smith) and begins to feel for her beyond the usual ways. Peter Cushing plays General Spielsdorf, the father of one of Carmilla’s victims, who is hoping to end the Karnstein’s reign of evil. I’m gonna just say I like this movie and not really explain why, though it’s probably evident.
Lust for a Vampire was released in 1971 with Yutte Stensgaard replacing Pitt but with essentially the same story. A member of the Karnsteins resurrects Mircalla and she goes off to a girl’s school. This one isn’t very good. The last of the trilogy, Twins of Evil, only features Mircalla in a brief cameo and instead focuses on Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) who wants to take one of the twin nieces of puritan witch-burner Gustav Weil (Cushing again) as his vampire bride. I like this film a lot as well, as it touches on many interesting subjects (like the dangers of piety) while still having lots of bare breasts.
One Shot Wonders
Hammer’s repertoire was filled out by a huge number of other films that didn’t have sequels. There are literally too many to name, but some of the best include: The Abominable Snowman (1957); The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, Andre Morell as Watson, and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, starring Oliver Reed, pictured above, was their only foray into lycanthropy); The Plague of the Zombies (1966, one of the best pre-Romero zombie films); The Reptile (1966, about a woman who turns into a snake creature); The Devil Rides Out (1968, about devil worshippers featuring a great script by Richard Matheson and Christopher Lee as the hero for once); Vampire Circus (1972, concerning a circus of bloodsuckers who descend on a plague-quarantined village); and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1974, a fun but silly movie about a roving swordsman who kills vampires). All of these movies are hugely enjoyable and have become horror night favorites for me.
Many of these films I’ve spoken about have gotten UK Blu-ray releases this year, but again no word on North American releases. Maybe if we all pester Anchor Bay or Warner Home Video enough (I don’t know who owns the rights in the US), they’ll agree to release them here.
Hammer is making a comeback with things like Let Me In and The Woman in Black, and I’m extremely excited to see where they go next. The studio has shaped the way I and a number of others see horror films, and they deserve to be remembered forever.
-Kanderson’s TWITTER. Join him this Saturday at 2pm for a Doctor Who screening at NerdMelt Showroom.