Hammer. A name synonymous with lush, Gothic horror with a very British tint. From 1958 until the early 70s, when Hammer—previously a somewhat down-on-its-luck film studio, hit upon the winning formula of revived horror classics with a fresh, Technicolor hue, liberally doused in blood and gore. Hammer produced dozens of films and a few TV series in its lifetime (it had a dry run in the 30s, before war-time exigencies slowed production and brought the studio to near-failure) –comedies, war movies, straight dramas, science fiction—but it became know for those fifteen or so years of full-color period piece horrors—often derivative and cheap and sometimes exploitative—but always flashy and classy and fun. Of course, to our tastes today these films are tame, the blood and gore silly and fake… but their wonderful period-creak has the cinematographic patina of a lost time—not only in the Victorian/Edwardian mise-en-scene of each film, but in the double dip of a bygone fifties and sixties, when times were simpler and even cheapish horror was slick and theatrical.
Here are a few of Hammer’s Gothic Horror films. Kids today may be jaded, but open your minds to suspended disbelief, and you may find yourself enjoying the look, colors, tonal moods and dark atmospheres of these small gems… not to mention the splendid acting talents of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Michael Ripper, Andre Morrell and many others—the regular players who made Hammer their home.
Quatermass and the Pit (titled “Five Million Years to Earth” for American distribution)
Bernard Quatermass was a character created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC in the 1950s, who was featured not only on television, but in a series of films produced by Hammer, beginning in 1955 with “The Quatermass Xperiment.” This begat a follow up a couple years later. Both films starred a poorly-cast American, Brian Donlevy, (a somewhat mundane actor with a well-fed face, who looked more businessman than scientist) as Quatermass. After these two black and white efforts failed to take off, Hammer delayed producing another Quatermass film until 1967, when it could apply both Technicolor and a better actor more suited to the role: bearded and tweeded Andrew Keir, who lent a professorial grumpiness to the part.
But not only that—Quatermass and the Pit (titled “Five Million Years to Earth” for American distribution) was given a Hammer supernatural horror treatment as well. The story of a mysterious and apparently dangerous “haunted” projectile discovered during construction of the London Underground (it’s at first assumed to be an unexploded German bomb leftover from WWII) which turns out to be a spacecraft from Mars (replete with mummified Martian corpses and fossils of the ape-men the grasshopper-like Martians were experimenting on) is more pure ghost and horror story than science fiction, with the ancient Martian plot to transfer the survival of their civilization to genetically engineered apes (later to evolve into Humanity) mixed in with horrific legends of demons, devils, ghosts and goblins. Indeed, the horned visage of the Martians is discovered to be the root at our race memory of a classic devil, and the whole thing ends in a terrific bang of electricity and telekinetic energy. A favorite of many a Saturday Afternoon TV monster movie matinee for us kids of the 70s, this film still packs a delicious jolt.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Not a horror tale you say? Oh, think again. When Hammer got a hold of it, the most famous Sherlock Holmes story became very much a horror yarn, and one of the best. Peter Cushing turns an elegant twist as the great detective, with Andre Morrell a superbly dead-on Watson. Christopher Lee is along for even more delight as the haunted and hunted Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to the titles and lands of the cursed Baskerville family. It’s always a thrill to watch the Lee and Cushing team-ups, and this one doesn’t disappoint. If you’re a Holmes fan, you’ll almost certainly love Cushing’s take on your hero, and if you’re a horror fan, you’ll find this one rare and tasty meat that’s well above the common dog food.
Scream of Fear
For a time in the early-to-mid 60s, Hammer produced a series of psychological thrillers in the “mini-Hitchcock” vein.This twisting, turning, nothing-is-what-it-seems shocker affected me so much when I was a kid that I never forgot the scene of an old man’s corpse, glimpsed floating at the bottom of a weed-choked pool. Pretty Susan Strasberg stars as the wheelchair-bound heiress who comes home to her family’s Cote d’Azur villa to suspicions that her stepmother and the village doctor may have murdered her father, and are plotting to drive her insane. From there it’s a minor roller-coaster ride of turning shocks with a surprise ending that delivers and delivers well. Creepy, moody, and sprinkled with scares.
The Plague of the Zombies
Three years before George Romero changed the Zombie genre forever with “Night of the Living Dead,” Hammer films were already paving the way with the first film ever that transformed the zombie from merely a slavish, robotic walking corpse into a terrifying monster. No, the zombies in “The Plague” aren’t yet eating your brains, or devouring your flesh—but they’re a damn site more menacing and nightmarish than the somewhat neutral zombies of the thirties and forties, when they were more prop than monster.
Great use of color for mood and tone, great direction and editing, and great makeup effects. AND a plus—a marvelously surreal dream sequence in the middle of it, an unusual departure for the usually straightforward Hammer.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness
Tops of all the Christopher Lee Dracula films.Lee has nary a line in this film, but that only makes him more animalistically menacing and evil. And this is a brutal film in some ways, taking the Hammer nastiness up a notch. Oh, not as high as it would get later, in, for instance “Scars of Dracula” and so on—but you can see the blood on the wall here. A nice touch is the introduction of Dracula’s human “servant” and protector, Klove, acted by Philip Latham in a wonderfully understated but supremely menacing manner. It also features the beautiful Barbara Shelley as Drac’s first female victim, and the always enjoyable Andrew Keir (the aforementioned Doctor Quatermass) as a helpful but irascible priest who is instrumental in dispatching the evil count. High point—the brutal, slaughter-like sacrifice of Charles Tingwell’s character so that his blood will resurrect the dry-as-dust Lee back to the land of the living-undead.
Another Hammer psychological thriller. It’s the story of a teenaged girl who witnessed her insane mother kill her father years earlier, and is now suffering recurring nightmares about the event. Released from school, she returns home to her guardian, nurse, and servants… but her nightmares become more and more realistic and vivid—and terrifying—centering on a woman she’s never seen before. We soon found out that the girl’s guardian and his mistress have taken advantage of all this to form a diabolical plot to get rid of the guardian’s wife… and the story goes twisting and turning from there.