This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blood and Stitches: The Rise of Hammer Horror

For me, the name 'Hammer' has always been synonymous with horror. As a kid, my father always spoke fondly of the 'Hammer Horror films' of yesteryear. I didn't really know what he meant at the time, but I knew that I must be missing out on something. If there was ever one on TV, I was never allowed to stay up and watch it, and so I would lie awake in bed, wondering exactly what a 'Hammer Horror film' consisted of. My imagination ran rampant with images of vampires, witches and all sorts of spooky goings on. It would be many years before I got a chance to watch one and I can honestly say that I was not disappointed one bit!

Hammer Horror films consist of every kid's hokey Halloween dreams. Creepy old houses, vampires in black capes with blood dripping down their chins, demonic cults, voluptuous vamp women and monsters stitched together by mad scientists. I can't remember a time when I wasn't intrigued by these films and so I give to you a short history on the rise of this incredibly creative studio and the fantastically gruesome films they produced.

Hammer was a British film company best known for producing gothic horror films from the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s. Hammer’s horror films were popular and controversial for their time due to their use of gore and nudity, both of which were brought to the screen in vivid colour, and are famous for reinventing classic horror characters such as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy which had been defined by Universal Studios decades before. Actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appeared in many Hammer Horror films, often together.

Hammer Film Productions Ltd was founded in 1934 by theatr
e chain owner and comedian William Hinds, who named the company after his own stage name Will Hammer. Whilst producing Hammer’s earliest films, Hinds met Spanish-born producer Enrique Carreras and together they formed a distribution company called Exclusive Films. But in 1937, after making only six films, Hammer Film Productions went into bankruptcy. Exclusive Films however, continued to distribute films made by other production companies until after the war when James Carreras (son of Enrique) resurrected Hammer Film Productions and was soon joined by Anthony Hinds (son of William).

To ensure a pre-sold audience, Hammer Film Productions was keen on making films based on popular British TV and radio serials such as the adventures of detective Dick Barton (Dick Barton Strikes Back – 1949 and Dick Barton at Bay – 1950). But James Carreras set his sights on a much larger prize and in 1951 he made a deal with Robert L. Lippert Productions, a Hollywood company interested in co-financing Hammer’s productions and distributing them across the Atlantic. It was at this point that Hammer adopted a policy of including at least one American actor in each of its films. This was due to fears that American audiences would shy away from the inherent ‘Britishness’ of Hammer’s productions.

With the success of 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment (released as The Creeping Unknown in the US), an adaptation of a popular BBC television serial, the subject of Hammer’s films increasingly delved into the realm of science fiction. X the Unknown (1956) and The Abominable Snowman (1957) quickly followed and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) grew increasingly worried about the gruesomely graphic content of Hammer productions. But one film would put Hammer Film Productions on the map as the new face of horror in both British and American cinemas.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was a daring but clever choice for the fledgling British production company. Universal Studios had reinvented Mary Shelly’s man-made monster for the screen in 1931 and he had provided a very lucrative franchise for them indeed, appearing in seven subsequent sequels. And Universal were hardly willing to hand over the reigns to Hammer, in fact Hammer was threatened with legal action if their monster in any way resembled the flat-headed, bolt-necked Universal version. This resulted in a unique new monster designed by Phil Leakey and played by Christopher Lee, but the real monster of the story was Baron Victor Frankenstein, played with cold-hearted intensity by Peter Cushing.

The pairing of these two actors marked the beginning of a tradition in Hammer films. Lee and Cushing would often play out the opposing forces of good and evil and their names became synonymous with that of Hammer Horror.

The Curse of Fr
ankenstein was distributed in the US by Warner Brothers (their first association with Hammer). It was instantly popular and Hollywood companies were soon queuing up to distribute Hammer’s future projects. The film marked a turning point for Hammer and it was clear that its new brand of gothic horror presented in lurid colour appealed to audiences and the studio soon turned its sights to another classic novel of the macabre.

Dracula (or Horror of Dracula as it was known in the US) was released in 1958 and cemented Hammer’s place in cinema as the master of the modern horror film. Christopher Lee was the new definition of the sinister count and Peter Cushing introduced the world to a much more energetic Van Helsing; a single-minded man hell bent on ridding the world of evil.

In the following years, most of Hammer's output was horror films as the studio entered its golden age. As well as producing sequels to its popular Frankenstein and Dracula adaptations, several other Universal monster money-spinners also got the Hammer makeover in The Mummy (1959), Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and The Phantom of the Opera (1962). The Invisible Man was also planned but never made it into production. Cushing and Lee were reunited again in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959); an excellent version of Sherlock Holmes' most famous case and an interesting take on R. L. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde turned up in 1960's The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.

But Hammer was also keen on producing stories that were not based on previous films or classic literature such as The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and The Gorgon (1964) whilst 1966 saw The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile and The Witches (nothing to do with Roald Dahl) among others.

The success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960 started a trend in black and white thrillers and Hammer was quick to answer. In 1961 Taste of Fear (Scream of Fear in the US) was released, a tale of murder and insanity. This film was the first in a series of Hammer productions which have since been labelled ‘Mini-Hitchcocks’ due to their reliance on psychological terror rather than gothic horror. As with Psycho, the films were mostly shot in black and white, a surprising change of tune for the studio that started the trend of vibrant colour horror films. Titles like Maniac (1963), Paranoiac (1964) and Fanatic (1965) reveal Hammer’s attempt to cash in on the success of Hitchcock’s masterpiece by branching out into the realm of the psychological suspense thriller.

But, of course, Hammer was not without its rivals both at home and abroad, and with the company enjoying huge success in Britain and the US, other companies soon jumped on the bandwaggon, creating something of a British horror boom in the 1960's.

Amicus Productions based at Shepperton Studios started out with black and white chiller City of the Dead (known as Horror Hotel in America) in 1960 and quickly moved on to producing ‘Horror Anthologies’ for which the studio became famous. These anthologies were filmed in colour and could easily be mistaken for Hammer productions, not least because several of them starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The visual style and the gothic themes of films such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), Torture Garden (1967) and The House the Dripped Blood (1970) made Amicus Productions a worthy rival to Hammer.

Tigon British Film Productions was founded in 1966 and like Amicus, began turning out cheap horror flicks. Notable ones include Witchfinder General (1968) The Beast in the Cellar (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).

Hollywood was not one to let the Brits have all the fun and in 1960 exploitation king Roger Corman directed House of Usher for American International Pictures (AIP). This began a series of gothic horror films starring Vincent Price and helmed by Roger Corman which defined AIP as another rival for Hammer’s title as Master of Horror. Whereas Hammer Horror films had a distinctive British feel to them, AIP drew their inspiration from those masters of American gothic; Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. This series of Corman/Price horrors has come to be called ‘The Poe Cycle’.

As the 1970's approached, Hammer was forced to change its style and the studio began to lose its touch somewhat. But I'll save that story for another time and instead leave you with a few lists, namely the films that comprise Hammer's most popular series. In the future, I shall post a comprehensive list of every Hammer Horror film made, but until next time, tread carefully and beware the full moon...


1957: Curse of Frankenstein

1958: The Revenge of Frankenstein

1964: The Evil of Frankenstein

1967: Frankenstein Created Woman

1969: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

1970: The Horror of Frankenstein

1974: Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell


1958: Dracula

1960: The Brides of Dracula

1966: Dracula: Prince of Darkness

1968: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave

1970: Taste the Blood of Dracula

1970: Scars of Dracula

1972: Dracula AD 1972

1974: The Satanic Rites of Dracula

1974: The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires


1959: The Mummy

1964: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

1967: The Mummy’s Shroud

1971: Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb


1961: Taste of Fear

1963: Maniac

1964: Nightmare

1964: Paranoiac

1965: Fanatic

1965: Hysteria

1965: The Nanny

1969: Crescendo

1972: Fear in the Night

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