Vivid colour, gothic settings, gore, girls and a team of actors including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were among the ingredients which saw a small British film studio take over the crown from Universal as master of the horror genre and reign supreme throughout the Sixties.
The origin of Hammer dates right back to 1913 when Enrique Carreras bought a cinema in London. He was to team up with William Hinds (who changed his name to Will Hammer) in a distribution company in 1935 and they began producing films until the war years intervened. In 1947 they resumed filming and began production at Bray Studios in 1948.
A number of the films were based on popular radio shows of the time and they later began to look into the source material found on television.
|From 1948 their films included ‘The Man In Black’, ‘Room To Let’, ‘Stolen Face’ and ‘The Lady In the Fog.’ Then, in 1952, they produced two science-fiction movies which generated an encouraging response. Their first major breakthrough came when they adapted the highly popular BBC TV ‘Quatermass’ series in 1954 with ‘The Quatermass Xperiment.’ It was a winner, quickly followed by a further box-office success ‘X The Unknown.’ Then they produced the film which was to change their direction entirely and establish them as one of the world’s major production companies and the biggest horror movie specialists since the 30s/40s reign of Universal. The film was ‘The Curse of Frankenstein.’ So many individual ingredients were responsible for the film’s unprecedented success: the timing, coming shortly after a major series called ‘Shock’ on American television which revived Universal’s classic horror movies; the use of colour in the legendary story for the first time; the teaming of Cushing and Lee, and the close-knit team within the Hammer framework itself.||
Lee, born in London in 1922, had made his film debut in ‘Corridor of
Mirrors’ in 1947 and appeared in numerous notable British films: ‘Hamlet’,
‘Scott of the Antarctic’, ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower’, ‘The Crimson
Pirate’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’, but had not really
established himself enough to appear in starring roles because of his
above average height of 6ft 5ins. When he heard that Hammer was seeking
an actor to portray the creature in ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, he
applied for the role. “I went along and actually convinced them that
they might make me totally unrecognisable, because I wasn’t getting
anywhere looking like myself.” The appearance as the creature led to
his portrayal of Dracula, which made him a star overnight and the natural
successor to Bela Lugosi. Hammer was planning to film ‘The Revenge of
Dracula’ as the immediate follow-up to ‘Dracula’ but it was cancelled
as Lee refused to repeat the role because he was afraid of being typecast.
Jimmy Sangster’s script was re-written for ‘Dracula – Prince of Darkness’ in 1965 when Lee agreed to return as Dracula, having appeared in a variety of roles in the meantime. Lee was later to claim that he was the only actor to have portrayed Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, Fu Manchu, the Mummy and Sherlock Holmes (although Lon Chaney Jr appeared as Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, the Mummy and the Wolfman) and starred in many Hammer films over the years, including their final horror production, ‘To The Devil A Daughter’ in 1975. Lee became personally very interested in the Dracula legend and was disappointed at the way Hammer failed to develop the character. He appeared as the vampire count for a number of non-Hammer productions, including ‘Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula’; ‘Dracula, Father and Son’ and ‘In Search of Dracula.’
Cushing asked his agent to apply, on his behalf, for the role of Baron
Frankenstein and Hammer, aware of his impressive performance as Winston
Smith in ‘1984’, signed him. He became a mainstay of Hammer throughout
the Sixties and was to say, “What I liked about those Hammer films such
as ‘Dracula’ was that it was all about good and evil – and you had to
ensure that good was just as acceptable as bad. They were fairy stories
of a kind, I suppose: terror tales which hold messages for all of us
deep within their narratives.”
The Frankenstein script, by Jimmy Sangster who had worked his way up in Hammer from tea boy to production manager, differed from the Universal approach whose subsequent films followed the adventures of the creature. Sangster placed the accent fully on the Baron, portraying him as a ruthless, but dedicated scientist. Sangster had also set the events of the film in Switzerland at the beginning of the 19th Century – and an attention to a period setting, from costumes to furniture to architecture, became another Hammer hallmark. Cushing commented, “Frankenstein has tremendous style, because he is always the same character. He has perhaps become a little more ruthless, but basically he remains the same. The actor’s character must always come through to a certain extent, which makes for some kind of continuity. You also try to create your character from what the scriptwriter has given you, and I don’t think that Peter Cushing is all that much like Frankenstein. You are substantially governed by the script, and the way in which these are written is bound to reflect current attitudes to some extent.”
the several in-house directors was Terence Fisher, whose first film
for Hammer was ‘The Last Page’ (1956). The company chose Fisher to direct
‘the Curse of Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ and he was also involved in
several of the sequels and other Hammer horrors such as ‘Hound of the
Baskervilles' (1958), ‘The Man Who Could Cheat Death’ (1958), ‘The Mummy’
(1959), ‘Stranglers of Bombay’ (1959), ‘The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll’
(1959), ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1962) and ‘The Devil Rides Out’
(1968). Fisher was to say:
“Although I was absolutely delighted with the opportunity, I must admit that my being asked to direct the first ‘Frankenstein’ was a stroke of pure luck. It happened that, under the terms of my contract, I was owed a film by Hammer and the next one happened to be ‘Frankenstein.’ “Hammer wanted me to see earlier versions of the Frankenstein story, but I refused to do this because I think everybody should bring his own individual approach to a subject while remaining within the broader confines of the original story. I tried to forget the idea that I was continuing the central horror tradition of the cinema. I wanted the film to grow out of personal contact with the actors and out of the influence of the very special sets. I have never read Mary Shelley’s original book, and I don’t think I ought to read it. The greatest credit ought to go to Jimmy Sangster, who wrote the scripts and managed to make the original story so cinematic.”
the Dracula and Frankenstein series were underway, Hammer began to remake
the Universal horror monster movie themes with ‘The Mummy’ (1959), ‘The
Curse of the Werewolf’ (1960), ‘The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll’ (1960) and
‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1962). There were a number of original horror
tales – ‘The Terror of the Tongs’ (1961) and ‘The Gorgon’ (1964); two
horror films set in Cornwall ‘The Plague of the Zombies’ (1966) and
‘The Reptile’ (1966) and a series of movies based on Dennis Wheatley
novels. Numerous other British studios such as Amicus and Tyburn were
now copying the Hammer formula and American investment in British films
began to wane.
Tastes were also changing and, in an attempt to adapt, Hammer introduced explicit sex into its movies, basing a trilogy of films, the Karnstein trilogy, on the Sheridan Le Fanu story ‘Carmilla’ – ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (1970), ‘Lust For A Vampire’ (1971) and ‘Twins Of Evil’ (1971). The vampire bite moved from the neck to the nipple and lesbian themes were introduced. Bare bosoms were even brought into the Dracula theme – ‘Countess Dracula’ (1971) and the Jekyll and Hyde story – ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971), but the interest in gothic horror films had passed its peak.
supply something that is very much lacking in people’s lives, the element
of fantasy. People love to dream and people love to escape into a dream
Hammer films provide those specialised dream worlds. Millions of people all over the world, when they see the word Hammer, know they will be entertained. This is the prime business of the cinema.”
Devil Rides Out (1968)
First- and best – of the Dennis Wheatley novels to be filmed by Hammer. Christopher Lee, a heroic figure as the Duc de Richleau pitting his knowledge against a coven of devil worshippers led by the warlock Mocata (Charles Gray). The Angel of death, giant spectral spiders and the Devil himself are involved in a tremendous battle between good and evil with a climax in a magic pentacle and a fight on the astral plane. The script was adapted by Richard Matheson.
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968)
The film that brought Hammer the Queen’s Award for Industry. It takes up the Dracula story where ‘Dracula, Prince of Darkness’ left off. A Monsignor (Rupert Davies) travels to the village of Keinenburg, in the shadow of Dracula’s castle and finds a young girl (Carrie Bauer) murdered, drained of blood, with her body stuffed into a church bell. The villagers no longer attend the church because of its proximity to the castle. The Monsignor is accompanied by the priest (Ewan Hooper) as he climbs to Dracula’s castle to carry out an exorcism and place a huge crucifix outside the castle. In the meantime the priest has fallen and hurt his head and his blood trickles onto the ice into the mouth of Dracula, reviving him. The priest becomes his pawn as Dracula sets off to take revenge on the Monsignor by turning his niece Maria (Veronica Carlson) into a member of the undead. But the Monsignor bars his way with a crucifix and chases the vampire away. He is murdered by the priest and Dracula abducts the girl, but her boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews) follows him to the castle and as they grapple, Dracula stumbles over a cliff and is impaled on the Monsignor’s golden cross.
The Lost Continent (1968)
Seeking to extend their repertoire outside the Dracula/Frankenstein/Mummy series, Hammer turned to the world of Dennis Wheatley, Britain’s noted novelist of the occult. The first half of the film places a group of misfits on a tramp steamer, lost in uncharted seas (‘Uncharted Seas’ was the title of the Wheatley novel). Initially, almost a routine lost-at-sea drama with the world-weary Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), falling in love with Eva (Hildegarde Knef), a woman with a mysterious past. Then the entire film changes pace when they sail into a Sargasso Sea, where ancient ships are trapped by carnivorous seaweed. The fleet of ships are inhabited by a strange race, ruled by an evil young king – and travel between vessels is aided by gas filled balloons. The audience hooted when cantilevered Dana Gillespie first appeared, supported by two balloons!