Hammer Film Production was originally started up by British Theatre Chain owner, Enrique Carreras and comedian William (Hammer) Hinds. The company was set up to produce a small amount of films for British domestic release by Exclusive. Eventually the company branched out and by obtaining a US partner they were able to get their films into the lucrative American markets.
Hammer were clever in their initial choice of films - carefully selecting popular UK radio shows and theatre hits to film which ensured a ready made audience. These film boasted an almost exclusively British cast but there was always a token American to soften the affect of all those British accents for other markets.
Hammer's first major success was a movie adaptation of the popular BBC series, The Quatermass Experiment . The film was huge in the UK but had an even greater success when it was released in the US in 1956. The film was retitled The Quatermass Xperiment for the US release which referred to its X certificate which was much the same as an 18 certificate today.
It was clear to the film company that horror and SF was going to be a big part of its future - the first films into production were a sequel to Quatermass and a remake of Frankenstein. Originally the Curse of Frankenstein was to be shot in black and white but at director, Terence Fisher's urging they decided to go with a colour version.
When the film was in the can Hammer sold the US distribution to Warner Brothers and it opened in the US to terrible reviews and even worse ones in the UK. The Observer's film critic said, it is one of the most repulsive films I have ever seen. And whilst the film may seem tame by today's standards, it did show a bit more gore, not to mention cleavage than was the norm for the period.
The film, critical flop, was a huge commercial hit, taking £5 million and it made the company a hot property and now American distributors were knocking on their door. It is worth noting that the gore, severed hands, gouged eyeballs and basic mayhem which shocked audiences set the benchmark for horror cinema.
Hammer would now become synonymous with horror as they began a cycle of movies that would see them tackle most of the familiar ghouls and ghosties - Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Zombies, Graverobbers and even Jack the Ripper. And although the company would continue in other genres, British comedy especially, it was for their horror films that they are best remembered. Indeed the company still exists today and recently released an all new movie,their first for many a year, Beyond the Rave onto the web and this can now be purchased on DVD. Check them out HERE
Frankenstein was followed up in 1958 with The Horror of Dracula which was an even bigger success. And Christopher Lee made an even better Dracula than Bela Lugosi who had so memorably played the character in Universal's version of the story. Again the critics were unkind but these days the film has become to be regarded as an all time classic - some critics have even placed it in the top 5 British movies ever made.
THE ESSENTIAL HAMMER
The Quatermass Experiment (1956) - dated but still tingles with tension.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) - Ushers in a new age of gruesome horror
Horror of Dracula (1958) - Hammer's best film. Christopher Lee makes a great and sinister vampire and the sexual aspect, previously hidden away in the subtext, was brought to the fore.
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)-The films starts up a second after the first movie ended and sees Baron Frankenstein escape the guillotine.
The Mummy(1959) - superior in every way to the Boris Karloff version
The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) - Oliver Reed is superb in this Gothic version of the ancient folk tale. He doesn't make such a tragic figure as Lon Chaney Jnr in the Universal Wolf-man, but the film is well acted and the set pieces are brilliantly staged.
The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) - This mesh-up of martial arts and vampires is good trashy fun.
As the films went on and the audiences dwindled the company upped the gore and the sexual content with mixed results. Of their later output The Karnstein trilogy which was loosely based on Camilla is well worth seeing - starting off with The Vampire Lovers (1970) and continuing with Lust for a Vampire(1971) and Twins of Evil (1972). The trailer for Vampire Lovers is embedded below.
WORTH A WATCH
Dracula AD 1972 - The vampire in Swinging modern day London. Fab as well as scary.
Plague of the Zombie (1965) - although this drags in places it is effective in delivering chills but only if you can stay awake. Though many do rate this film highly.
To the Devil a Daughter (1966) - A flop at the time but this version of the Dennis Wheatley novel has stood the test of time.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) - Christopher Lee back as Dracula. Nuff said.
During the 70's Hammer found that their brand of gothic horror was becoming old fashioned next to films like The Excorsist and Rosemary's Baby and George Romero had set a new benchmark for gore with Night of the Living Dead. The studio, although still making the odd horror movie, devoted most of its energies to big screen versions of popular British TV sitcoms such as On The Buses and Man About the House. The last film of the original Hammer was 1979's remake of the Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes with Elliot Gould in the starring role. It was hoped this film would rekindle the ailing studio's fortunes but the film flopped and the studio went to the wall. Film production ended and the company produced several successful TV series but these were Hammer productions in name only and the exuberance of past films had vanished forever.
These days I don't much like horror films - the genre has become largely teen and slasher obsessed but from time to time there is an old Hammer movie on TV and I'll watch it. They have the look of a costume drama and the landscape is lensed in a Gothic fashion - the skies are always dark and foreboding, the moon always full, the wind always howls and any blood spilt is impossibly red. And of course there is always that cleavage as buxom wenches once again fall victim of the suave vampire. They sure don't make em like they used to.
Hammer have been revived in recent years and there is talk of a big budget horror movie from the studio. Maybe it will work - maybe the horror genre has gone as far as it can with splatter and effects and maybe now is the time for the return of Gothic horror. Maybe one day we will see the Hammer name up in lights again...it would be nice to think so.