Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Hammer horror refers to a series of low-budget horror films produced in the late 1950s through the 1970s by the British film studio Hammer Films, although it is sometimes also used to refer to films made in a similar style by other smaller studios such as, for example, Amicus Productions.
Hammer was founded in London in 1932 by Spanish-born cinema owner Enrique Carerras and music hall comedian William Hinds. Hinds performed as one half of a double-act called Hammer and Smith, from which the partnership took its name. Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Hammer produced numerous very low-budget comedies and crime dramas. Carreras and Hinds brought their sons - Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds - onboard in 1939, and it was they who, in the late 1950s, noted a taste for horror subjects in the post-war public, and moved the studio toward the production of that type of film.
Their first experiment with horror was a cheaply licensed and produced adaptation of Nigel Kneale's radio play The Quatermass Experiment, which was directed by Val Guest and released under the title "The Quatermass Xperiment" in 1955. It was an unexpected success, and led to an equally popular 1957 sequel (Quatermass 2) again adapted from a Kneale script, this time originally written for television.
At this point, Carreras and Hinds began to look for more horror material that would be cheap to adapt. Realising that no-one had made versions of the classic horror stories - specifically Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy - since Universal Studios' 1930s films and their numerous sequels, they decided on a new Frankenstein film as their next project. To avoid copyright disputes with Universal, Jimmy Sangster 's script was based very clearly on the original novel, with an appropriate period setting, and the make-up devised for Christopher Lee bore little relation to Jack Pierce's iconic creation for Boris Karloff. Another innovation, and one which took advantage of the studio's investment in a more expensive colour production, was the amount of gore in the film. Previously, horror films had not shown blood in a graphic way, or when they did it was concealed by monochrome photography. In The Curse of Frankenstein , it was bright red, and the camera lingered upon it.
The film itself is directed excitingly by Terence Fisher, with a lavish look that belies its modest budget. Peter Cushing's performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein, and Lee's as the imposingly tall, brutish monster provide the film with a further veneer of polish.
The film was an enormous success, not only in the UK, but also in the USA, where it inspired numerous imitations from, amongst others, Roger Corman and his American International Pictures. It also found success on the European continent, where Italian directors and audiences were particularly receptive.
"The Curse of Frankenstein" provided the studio with a template which they stuck with for around the next ten years. In 1958, they produced The Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee as the Count, and Peter Cushing as Abraham van Helsing. 1959 saw the release of The Mummy (1959 movie), again featuring Lee as the monster and Cushing as his opponent.
The two were paired over the following decades quite frequently, in a series of sequels to these three pictures. Lee went on to become, after Bela Lugosi, the next most famous face of Dracula. He made six more Dracula pictures for Hammer:
- Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966
- Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, 1968
- Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1969
- Scars of Dracula, 1970
- Dracula AD 1972, 1972
- The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973
Cushing, for his part, went on to make five more Frankenstein films for Hammer, including 1959's The Revenge of Frankenstein. Cushing also appeared in Dracula sequels without Lee, such as 1960's Brides of Dracula, in which David Peel played an intriguingly decadent Count.
As audiences became more sophisticated in the late 1960s, with the release of films like Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, the studio struggled to maintain its place market. Accordingly, later films in the series seem to turn increasingly to self-parody. Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula abandon period settings in pursuit of a "swinging London" feel, which drew fire not only from critics, but also from Christopher Lee himself.
Hammer films had always featured sex heavily, but both this and the amounts of gore came to be intensified in the studios later films. Most notable were the films of the Karnstein Trilogy based very loosely on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla:
These experiments were, broadly speaking, not successful in box-office or critical terms, although Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter , written and directed by Hammer newcomer Brian Clemens , better known as the creator of The Avengers, is often cited as an exception to the rule.
In the early 1980s Hammer Films created a series for British television, Hammer House of Horror, which ran for 13 episodes. In a break from their cinema format, these featured plot twists which usually left the protagonists falling to whatever malign form the evil took. These varied from sadistic shopkeepers with hidden pasts, to witches and satanic rites, and were marked by their dark destructive irony, the haunting title music, and by the interingling of horror within everyday people's lives.
The Hammer Horror films were generally critically derided when they appeared, although Terence Fisher's direction was often praised. Critics accused them of being over-the-top and gruesome in the manner of the Grand Guignol tradition. In recent years, however, they seem tamer, and have developed a following based on their atmosphere and camp appeal.
In recent years, although the company has seemed to be in hibernation, frequent announcements have been made of new projects. In 2003, for example, the studio announced plans to work with Australian company Pictures in Paradise to develop new horror films for the DVD and cinema market.
- Jack Hunter, House of Horror
- Ken Hanke, A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series (has good chapters on the Dracula and Frankenstein films)
- Randall Larson, Music from the House of Hammer
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