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House of the Dead: A Guide to Hammer Films

Founded in November 1934, Hammer films is one of the oldest film companies in the world. Hammer is synonymous with horror, after defining the genre in Britain with classics such as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy, which spawned numerous sequels. However, surprisingly only a third of Hammer films were horror! The company tackled other genres, including psychological thrillers, sci-fi, noir and historical epic, and has a back catalogue of nearly 300 titles.

Hammer Film Productions was founded on 5th November 1934. In the pre-war period Hammer’s output ranged from comedy The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, and slave drama The Song of Freedom starring Paul Robeson to the ambitious Bela Lugosi feature The Mystery of the Marie Celeste. Following the outbreak of World War II, and with its executives seeing active service, production ground to a halt.

Things kickstarted again in the 40s, and with a growing demand for British-produced supporting movies after the Second World War, Hammer was re-formed and began to dabble in crime capers, and boy’s own adventure stories. In 1951 Hammer began to co-produce its films with the US producer Robert Lippert, enabling the company to develop its North American market, and cast US stars.

Honing its craft the company largely focused on crime thrillers and films noir such as Man Bait, Bad Blonde, and Terror Street. In 1954 Hammer returned to adventure stories with its first colour feature film ‐ The Men of Sherwood Forest. However, it was the 1955 film, The Quatermass Xperiment that changed the course of Hammer’s film output almost overnight. It was a commercial and critical hit. Tapping into the 50s parnoia and UFO obessision, it was a success with audiences.

Hammer

Following the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer switched focus to horror. The company made history with its first full colour creature feature The Curse of Frankenstein. The film was directed by Terence Fisher, with a look that belied its modest budget. British TV star Peter Cushing portrayed Victor Frankenstein, and supporting actor Christopher Lee was cast as the creature.

With a budget of £65,000 and a cast and crew that would become the backbone of later films, Hammer’s first gothic horror went into production. The use of colour encouraged a previously unseen level of gore. Until The Curse of Frankenstein, horror films had not shown blood in such a graphic way, or when they did, it was concealed by monochrome photography. In this film, it was bright red and very noticeable.

The film was an enormous success, not only in Britain, but also in the USA, where it inspired numerous imitations from, amongst others, Roger Corman and American International Pictures. The film was also a success in Europe especially in Italy where Italian directors and audiences were particularly receptive.

Dracula was an enormous success, breaking box-office records in the UK, the United States (where it was released as Horror of Dracula), Canada, and across the world. With these two films alone Hammer had cemented the company name.

Hammer

However, things began to change in the late 1960s, with the release of successful films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the studio struggled to maintain its place in the market. It responded by bringing in new writers and directors, testing new characters, and attempting to rejuvenate their vampire and Frankenstein films with new approaches to familiar material.

Hammer’s Vampire Circus, Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, saw the traditional period setting was abandoned in pursuit of a modern-day setting and “swinging London” feel. These films were not successful, and drew fire not only from critics, but from Christopher Lee himself, who refused to appear in any more Dracula films after these. Speaking at a press conference in 1973 Lee said:

“I’m doing it under protest… I think it is fatuous. I can think of twenty adjectives – fatuous, pointless, absurd. It’s not a comedy, but it’s got a comic title. I don’t see the point.”

Hammer films had always sold, in part, on their violent and sexual content. After the release of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969), audiences were increasingly able to see more explicit gore and violence in mainstream films. Night of the Living Dead (1968) had set a new standard for graphic violence in horror films. Hammer tried to compete but realised quickly that, if they could not be as gory as the new American productions.

Hammer

In the latter part of the 1970s, Hammer made fewer films, and attempts were made to break away from the then-unfashionable gothic horror films on which the studio had built its reputation. Hammer were unable to capitalise on them as most of the profits went to other financial backers. Hammer’s last production, in 1979, was a remake of Hitchcock’s 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes, starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd.

In the 2000s, although the company seemed to be in hibernation, frequent announcements had been made of new projects but it wasn’t until 2008 that Beyond the Rave was released. On 10 May 2007, it was announced that Dutch producer John De Mol had purchased the Hammer Films rights via his private equity firm Cyrte Investments. In addition to holding the rights to over 300 Hammer films, De Mol’s company plans to restart the studio. The studio has had some success with Let Me In (2010) which was the remake of Let the Right One In, and Women in Black in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Hopefully, the studio will continue to grow. Hammer isn’t dead yet.

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