Famed for its gruesome gothic horrors, Hammer Film became one of Britain’s most successful production companies in the 1950s and 1960s. This exhibition tells the story of Hammer through a stable of its most terrifying monsters, exploring how each contributed to the making and eventual breaking of this infamous institution.
Hammer at Cathi
The Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI) at De Montfort University has been the custodian of Hammer’s archive of scripts since 2012 and periodically receives further materials, including correspondence, production files and press folders from the company’s storage facility. Donated memorabilia has been welcomed from the estates of film-makers such as Jimmy Sangster and Roy Ward Baker as well as from generous enthusiasts. Additionally, many of the publicity images displayed in this exhibition are on loan from the personal collection of CATH Director, Professor Steve Chibnall.
The Archive was launched at a memorable film festival ‘Hammer has Risen from the Grave’ at Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema in 2012. It was attended by an array of Hammer stars, directors and writers and featured the premiere of the high-definition restoration of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), introduced by actor and writer Mark Gatiss.
CATH provided four speakers for the international conference on Hammer held in Paris in summer 2015 and fielded a stream of media requests when Sir Christopher Lee, known for his leading role in the Dracula film cycle, past away in London during the course of proceedings.
The History of Hammer
Over the past six decades, Hammer Films have become synonymous with horror: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and a horrible host of ghouls, zombies and creatures of the night.
In the process, the production company has given sleepless nights to the Censor and audiences whilst making stars of hard-working actors like the late Sir Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt. As the brand leader in gothic horror, especially during the transformative years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Hammer was constantly under pressure to find fresh ways to unsettle the paying public with frightful sights.
The beasts also had their beauties and the hunt was always on to discover new faces for the now iconic gallery of ‘Hammer Glamour’ actresses.
After gothic horrors began to lose popularity in the late 1970s, the production company suffered subsequent false starts in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Hammer re-entered film production in 2010 under new management releasing three films in cinemas, Let Me In (2010), The Resident (2011) and Wake Wood (2011). Despite Let Me In centring on a vampire and The Resident featuring a cameo from Christopher Lee, the American casts and locations created a clear separation from the Hammer style of old. Furthermore, Wake Wood’s limited cinema release resulted in a meagre box office of only £1200. Hammer was back, but needed a hit.
Famous for its savvy use of the ‘X’ rating to promote its 1950s horror cycle, Hammer managed to secure 12a certificate for its next feature, The Woman in Black (2012), and procured Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Harry Potter role, helping it become the most successful British horror in box office history.
The global appeal of the film reminded audiences of Hammer’s old achievements. It was laden with familiar iconography from their previous gothic cycle and introduced a terrifying new monster to the big screen.
The Plague of Zombies, 1966
The Plague of the Zombies (1966) was Hammer’s first and surprisingly only foray into the zombie genre.
It was produced as a ‘B’-picture to Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966), yet the suppressive atmosphere and intensity of the film make it one of Hammer’s finest efforts. It is considered to be extremely innovative for the time and even influenced many future endeavours within the genre. Set in a small Cornish village in 1860 where the inhabitants are dying from a mysterious illness, the film showcases exceptional signs of cinematic experimentation - particularly in an extraordinary dream sequence in which the screen turns a greenish hue and the living dead rise from their graves en-masse.
The Reptile, 1966
Entering production just one week after The Plague of the Zombies had finished shooting, The Reptile (1966) proved that Hammer’s reputation for frugality did not always require a compromise on quality.
Sharing the same director, John Gilling, and reusing sets and crews kept the film’s budget at just £100,000. However, The Reptile is often deemed one of Hammer’s most brooding and eerie, with a plot that finds a Cornish village menaced by a local woman, played by Jacqueline Pearce, transformed into a reptilian creature by a Southeast Asian cult.
Whether the film’s tone of invasive foreign threat reflects anxieties about post-war immigration, or is simply an ironic criticism of Britain’s own fading empire, remains a topic of debate.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) was adapted from Guy Endore’s novel, The Werewolf of Paris (1933). The setting was relocated to 18th century Spain to make use of some sets Hammer had constructed for an unmade project about the Spanish Inquisition.
Although the film was regarded as a classic comparable to much of the production company’s finest work, it was subjected to several cuts at the hand of the British Board of Film Censors. It also struggled to capture audience interest without Hammer’s most recognisable stars, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. As a result, it was Hammer’s first and final experiment with lycanthropy (the transformation of a person into a wolf), but it is fondly remembered for Oliver Reed’s anguished performance as the creature - his first credited role.
The Frankenstein Film Cycle
With seven films in the series, which adapts and extends Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic horror novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), Frankenstein’s monster rivals Dracula as Hammer’s most recognisable creature.
While the Dracula film cycle thrived on the success of Christopher Lee’s performance as the Count, Frankenstein films all saw the revival of a different corpse, leading to a range of actors playing various monsters.
Only David Prowse, who would go on to play Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, played the monster more than once, appearing in both The Horror of Frankenstein and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.
Continuity was instead provided by Peter Cushing, whose widespread popularity led him to become synonymous with his role as Baron Frankenstein.
Peter Cushing appeared in all of Hammer’s Frankenstein films with the exception of The Horror of Frankenstein. This film was something of a curiosity within the franchise as it attempted to be both a parody and a remake of the first of the cycle, The Curse of Frankenstein. It was also an endeavour to reinvigorate the series, which had become increasingly stale particularly as the 1970s saw horror cinema moving into more graphic and supernatural territory.
For the last film, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Cushing was reinstated and Hammer adopted its earlier formula, but audiences proved unreceptive and no further attempts to resurrect the franchise were made.
The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957
The Curse of Frankenstein was Hammer’s first gothic horror filmed in colour. It established the template for their long-lasting affinity with the genre and 60 years later is still regarded as a gruesome classic.
Peter Cushing stepped into his first Hammer role as the arrogant, morally bankrupt Baron Frankenstein, with Christopher Lee also making his first Hammer appearance as Frankenstein’s sympathetic creation.
Distributed internationally by Warner Brothers, the film initially encountered some resistance from Universal Pictures, who produced the black and white version of Frankenstein in 1931. Hammer was legally instructed to avoid visually similarities with the famous Boris Karloff monster. Make-up artist Phil Leakey rose to the challenge by providing a grotesquely unique and memorable design for Lee’s creature.
‘The uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr. Jimmy Sangster cannot obscure the remnants of a good horror story.’
This was the rather blunt verdict of the British Board of Film Censors on the submission of the script for Dracula. Undeterred, Dracula saw many of the cast and crew of The Curse of Frankenstein reunited, with the film studio growing in confidence and stature. Peter Cushing received top billing for his assured performance as the virtuous vampire hunter Van Helsing. Yet, it is Christopher Lee’s Dracula, described as ‘A Terrifying Lover’ in the film’s memorable marketing campaign, who lingers long in memory - instilling the character of the Count with a ferocity and sexual energy never seen before in previous versions of the classic villain.
The Dracula Film Cycle
After Hammer’s 1958 Dracula proved to be a huge hit at the international box office, they yet again found themselves in the enviable position of attempting to extend a franchise with a character that originally only appeared in a single stand-alone novel.
The issue was temporarily evaded with the reluctance of Christopher Lee to reprise his role in the fear of being typecast. As a result, the character of Dracula was omitted from the sequel and a new vampiric presence, Baron Meinster played by David Peel, faced-off against the returning Dr Van Helsing reprised by Peter Crushing in The Brides of Dracula.
Lee’s Dracula finally returned in Dracula Prince of Darkness, but with his iconic character very much diminished. Appearing fifty minutes into the film and not speaking one line of dialogue (Lee maintained that this was due to his refusal to speak the poor lines given to the character), this was an underwhelming return after his eight-year absence from the screen.
Three more Dracula films followed in quick succession, until the Count suddenly found himself arriving (admittedly slightly late) to a swinging London in Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. These attempts to update the plot formula ultimately failed and Lee departed the ailing franchise.
Looking for new international markets, Hammer turned their eyes eastwards and decided to take one last swing of the stake in 1974. Teaming with Hong Kong film company, The Shaw Brothers, who had become famous for their Kung-Fu pictures, Hammer co-produced Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. This Kung-Fu/horror mash-up found Count Dracula (now played by John Forbes-Robertson), commanding a sect of vampires in 19th century China. The film performed relatively well in the UK, but was not released in America until 1979. The franchise was finally put to rest after nine instalments.
Young audiences influenced by sixties counterculture began to reject Hammer’s easy equation of sexual desire with evil, particularly as the censorship became more liberal towards sexuality, nudity and violence.
Hammer responded with a series of films with vampiric women as their anti-heroines. The new formula emphasised blood, bare breasts and lesbian longings by replacing Dracula with the notorious Hungarian sadist, Countess Elizabeth Báthory and Carmilla from Sheridan Le Fanu’s celebrated lesbian vampire novella (1871).
The beautiful Polish actress, Ingrid Pitt (Ingoushka Petrov), a concentration-camp survivor whose uninhibited screen presence would win her the title ‘Queen of Horror’, took the Báthory role in Countess Dracula and played Carmilla in the first of the ‘Karnstein trilogy’, The Vampire Lovers. Written by Tudor Gates, the trilogy was completed by Lust for a Vampire and John Hough’s superior Twins of Evil, which suggested that militant puritanism might be a greater evil than vampirism and which starred the ex-Playboy centrefolds, the Collinson twins.
The Devil has been the focus of two Hammer films, both adaptations of Denis Wheatley novels.
The Devil Rides Out (1968) draws from the gothic horror tradition, complete with mystical cults, lurid colours and black magic. However, arriving in cinemas shortly after Rosemary’s Baby, which offered a more modern, unsettling take on the satanic, these traditional gothic elements left The Devil Rides Out looking old-fashioned.
Hammer’s second dance with the devil was also hampered by comparisons to a more visceral American production. To the Devil a Daughter (1978), a tale of a mysterious religious order preparing a nun to become Astaroth (or the Great Duke of Hell in mythology) was pre-empted by The Omen, which was released two years earlier to wide critical acclaim. Hammer could not compete with the evolution of the genre and this was the studio’s final horror production before it entered a long period without a release, which lasted from 1979 to 2008.
In 1910, the German village of Vandorf suffers a spate of mysterious deaths, each explained away by desperate authorities. However, the true culprit lurks in a nearby castle.
The last of the Gorgons, snake-haired creatures of Greek mythology capable of turning their victims to stone, has returned. The Gorgon (1964) is most notable for the film’s bleak ending, where the monster causes the deaths of a significant number of main characters. Prudence Hyman, who played the Gorgon, used this role to transition into acting from her earlier career as a ballerina. The sense of hopelessness that pervades the film limited its appeal at the box office, but makes an unusual addition to the Hammer canon.
The Mummy Film Cycle
In 1959, Hammer achieved critical and commercial success with a story about the reanimated, mummified remains of an Egyptian high priest.
While the film’s title, The Mummy, is borrowed from a Universal Pictures production from 1932, Hammer took its plot and characters from three later Universal films, The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). Filmed in Technicolor and again starring Hammer’s two most renowned stars, Cushing and Lee, The Mummy saw the cloth-wrapped monster transported to England to hunt the archaeologists responsible for disturbing his tomb.
The Mummy’s popularity spawned three further films, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. Unusually for Hammer, none of these films shared characters, locations or mythology. The final film is more unusual still in that it does not feature a bandaged mummy at all. It instead sees the spirit of an Egyptian princess possessing the body of a young British woman before eventually returning to her own perfectly preserved body.
Perhaps as a result of this lack of continuity, as well as the films’ diminishing quality and the departure of Cushing and Lee, the Mummy series achieved neither the longevity nor the public adoration afforded to Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula films.