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The Hallowed Horrors of Hammer!

by Joseph Parra

In 1934, several small British producers and distributors got together to form Hammer Exclusive Productions to exhibit their own "B" melodramas, other small independent producers' pot-boilers, and (occasionally) minor gems. The productions were often "action quickies" and English or Irish humor pieces. Because of these productions (particularly the English humor films), distribution beyond the British Empire was spotty at best, especially during the War years. In fact, the only films that were making profits for them by the early 1950s were some "detective series" movies. Then someone remembered a one-shot film from 1935 that did decent box-office throughout Europe, Canada, and (under a different title) America.

Bela Lugosi came to England to star in Mystery of the Marie Celeste (aka Phantom Ship) in 1935. The film was based on a true maritime phenomenon in British naval history involving a derelict ship. It is actually quite a decent film, with Lugosi outstanding as a religious zealot schizophrenic who does away with the crew of the ship because of their immorality! (How about that? The first big Hammer horror star wasn't Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing; it was Bela Lugosi!) Remembering how well this film did led Hammer to experiment with some supernatural thrillers in the 1940s - such as Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and Room to Let (a 1949 "Jack the Ripper" thriller). Box-office for these films was OK. Corridor is an alright supernatural murder story; and Room is a nice, moody piece (but very low-budgeted and barely an hour long). Then, in 1952, Hammer felt inspired by the success America was having with science fiction. They decided that they, too, would have science fiction.

4-Sided Triangle is based on a combination of cinematic stories, including plot elements of Frankenstein and Metropolis. In it, a scientist loves his best friend's girl, but realizes this can never be, so he makes a duplicate. (And this was way before it was a sci-fi staple!) Well, the only problem with the new lady is that she doesn't have a soul - thus, she has no morals, no conscience... The film did decent box-office (especially in England) and prompted Hammer to try another sci-fi film. Spaceways was an attempt to bridge "the Atlantic Ocean gap" by putting an American star, Howard Duff, in the lead. Basically, the film is the grandaddy of the "let all nations work together to establish a space station to orbit the Earth for the purpose of peace" type of movie. It also suffers from the preachiness that seems inherent to that sort of sci-fi film. When it came to America, it almost went immediately to TV as part of a package that included 4-Sided Triangle and Alraune (a German sci-fi film).

However, Hammer was not ready to give up the ghost (or the spaceship, anyway)! BBC had contracted with sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale to air a radio broadcast of his The Quatermass Experiment in 1952. This broadcast was so successful that a teleplay was ordered up. The TV show was an instant hit; and follow-up shows were ordered. The only problem was that, in the early 1950s, most of the British Isles didn't have "tellies"! Hammer Films thought Quatermass cinema-worthy, and hired Brian Donlevy to portray Prof. Bernard Quatermass in the 1955 classic The Quatermass Xperiment (known as The Creeping Unknown in America). This film was an international hit and spawned the sequel Quatermass 2 (Enemy From Space in the U.S.), also based on a Kneale BBC radio show. A third film was planned as an original screenplay, but a deal could not be struck with either Kneale or BBC; so a few script revisions formed X, The Unknown in 1957 (with Dean Jagger in the planned Quatermass role). This film did very well in international markets - all in black-and-white - both movies and profits. (Hammer did eventually return to Quatermass in 1967, with a good adaptation of Kneale's 1958 BBC television play Quatermass and the Pit - this time in color. But the box-office was spotty, so they only ventured into sci-fi one more time - the dismal Moon Zero Two.)

1957 was a watershed year for Hammer Films. Their low-budget sci-fi films were well-received; and they decided it was time to branch out with horror - and color. The Curse of Frankenstein was a landmark in the history of Hammer. It brought Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to the forefront as the new Karloff-and-Lugosi, director Terence Fisher as the new James Whale/Tod Browning, and Hammer as the heir to the throne held by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s. Curse is a bleak version of Frankenstein, by having the Baron commit murder to make his monster. The film was the surprise hit of 1957 and spawned six sequels, including Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and the interesting finale Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973). Since Mary Shelley's mad Baron and his "friend" were a hit, the next logical step was Bram Stoker's Count. Whereas Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee played (respectively) the Baron and the Monster, it was only natural that they would also be Dracula and Van Helsing - only, this time, Lee would portray the title character and Cushing his all-knowing nemesis. Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula in the U.S.) was directed by Terence Fisher and was an even bigger hit than Curse - and one of the top ten grossing films of 1958. Eight sequels followed, including Brides of Dracula (1960) and the nicely-done Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).

1959 was an important year for Hammer, too. The releases of three films - The Mummy (based on the Universal 1940s film series); The Man Who Could Cheat Death (a remake of the Paramount classic The Man in Half Moon Street); and The Ugly Duckling (a comic version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story) - established Hammer as the major supplier of classy fantasy entertainment.

The 1960s brought great prosperity to Hammer, as well as subtle changes. Starting with Dracula, sex became a staple of Hammer - as did Eastmancolor gore. The 1960 film The 2 Faces of Dr. Jekyll is heavy with sex. Both overt hetero- and hinted-at homosexual acts are depicted, as the old Dr. Jekyll becomes the handsome, lascivious, and murderous Mr. Hyde. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) became famous for being the first werewolf film in color, Oliver Reed's big break as an actor, and Hammer's only werewolf film. 1961 also marked the beginning of Hammer's "sex & psycho" series of films: Taste (Scream) of Fear (1961), Maniac (1962), The Old Dark House (1962), Paranoic (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), Straight on Till Mourning (1971), and Fear in the Night (1974). These films were immensely popular in England but went almost immediately to either the drive-in market or TV sales here in the States. 1962 saw Phantom of the Opera, which was one of Hammer's few box-office failures at this juncture (although directed by Terence Fisher and more appreciated today). That same year also began Hammer's "vampires other than Dracula" movies, with Kiss of the Vampire. This was a very successful move on Hammer's part, as these films also marked the beginning of the European cycle of horror films and clearly influenced the likes of Mario Bava, Jesus Franco, Leon Klimovsky, and others.

1964, 1965, and 1966 saw some good one-shots for Hammer. 1964 brought The Gorgon, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as (respectively) villain and hero, in an eerie story about a woman who transforms (under the influence of the full moon) into Magaera, the 2nd gorgon sister of Greek mythology. 1965 produced two oddball hits, Fanatic (Die! Die! My Darling! in the U.S.) and She. Fanatic is best remembered today because of the incredible performance of Tallulah Bankhead (in one of her rare film appearances) as the fanatical Mrs. Trefoile. She returned Lee and Cushing to their customary roles of villain and hero in this opulent version of H. Rider Haggard's tale of the immortal queen of a lost city in the African deserts. Ursula Andress portrays the scantily-clad "She Who Must Be Obeyed" (her royal title). This film, while quite campy (i.e. it's so bad, it's good!), did remarkably well financially. 1966 brought three interesting and different titles. The Reptile is a tale of Indian mysticism that takes place in Scotland! (An anthropologist's daughter becomes a snake-woman due to a guru's curse.) Plague of the Zombies is the story of a Cornish mine owner who employs voodoo techniques to take care of his employment difficulties (a sort of reworking of the White Zombie formula). 1 Million Years B.C. is a remake of the 1940 classic - however, much improved, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen replacing the rear-projected "giant lizards" of the original - except for one iguana, which was used in homage to the original film. (This film is also famous for introducing Raquel Welch to the world.)

1967 brought nothing remarkable - mostly sequels to sequels (as was the case with most of the 1960s). 1968, however, was a ray of moonlight; Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out was faithfully brought to the screen. Christopher Lee stars as the good warlock, the Duc de Richelieu, in combat with the evil warlock Mocata (as played by Charles Gray). This film and The Devil's Own (an occult tale, with Joan Fontane as a teacher bewitched by Kay Walsh, a psychologist obsessed with satanic worship) were the last original gasps of the once-innovative but now trivial and sequel-obsessed Hammer.

The 1970s rung the death knell for Hammer. Changes in management, lack of original material, sensationalistic approaches, and (possibly) getting too big for their britches - all led to the downfall of "the terror giant." Most of the films from the early 1970s were bad retreads, with one or two exceptions. The Vampire Lovers (1970) brings J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla to the screen, with all of its lesbian undertones now as overtones. 1973's Satanic Rites of Dracula was Christopher Lee's swansong as the Count, and all the stops were pulled. Most of the previous Dracula sequels, while not bad, were pretty much the same; but this one made the Count a modern English capitalist billionaire bent on destroying the world through germ warfare, as revenge for his 500+-year existence. The Count has all of his vampiric majesty - after all, Lee was the only person to portray the Transylvanian that ever left an impression as indellible as Lugosi's. In this film, however, he has hints of Fu Manchu, Goldfinger, and comicbook villains as well! Peter Cushing is on hand and as magnificent as ever, as the great-great-grandson of Dr. Van Helsing; and a good time is had by all. Another swansong is Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973), in which the Baron (Peter Cushing, of course) is performing his curious brand of surgery (with an able and willing assistant) in an insane asylum! The monster in this installment is played by David Prowse (of Darth Vader fame). Prowse had once before played one of Dr. Frankenstein's creations in the dismal 1970 film Horror of Frankenstein. Frankenstein/Hell is not a bad film - it's even slightly tongue-in-cheek - and ends with the Baron going quite mad. And so the series ended well. Hammer's theatrical horror swansong, however, was To the Devil, A Daughter (1976). It was adapted from Dennis Wheatley's novel about a defrocked priest-cum-devil worshipper (Christopher Lee) vying for the soul of a young novitiate (Nastassia Kinski) but confounded by an occult-knowledgeable author (Richard Widmark). It's an OK movie; but the "period on the sentence" was now at the end of the writing on the wall for Hammer.

In the late 1970s, Hammer tried (via England's ITV) to revive its once undisputed sovereignty in the genre. Unfortunately, The House of Hammer TV series was just a pale shadow of what once had been. Hammer was gone.

Earlier, I mentioned some of the possible causes for the demise; but, most of all, it was that time had passed them by. What had once been provocative was now blase. What had been shocking and frightening was now standard in the industry - perhaps even surpassed by others. However, for those of us who remember the British chills and thrills of the 1950s and 1960s (and, to a lesser degree, the 1970s), there was once in the British Isles "a brief and shining spot." No, not Camelot - but Bray Studios: The Hallowed Halls of Hammer!!!

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