Hammer Films

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Hammer Films tried to bring the Dracula myth into the modern age with Dracula A.D. 1972, which starred Christopher Lee as Dracula. Stephanie Beacham is in the background.
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A scene from Hammer Films’ Taste the Blood of Dracula.

Hammer Films

(pop culture)

Hammer Films, the film studio whose horror movies in the 1960s brought a new dimension to the vampire myth, was founded in 1948 by Will Hammer and Sir John Carreras. Largely based upon public response to its horror movies, Hammer became the most successful British film company in the generation after World War II. Hammer burst upon the scene after the film industry had neglected the horror genre for several decades—partly out of censorship considerations and partly from its own conservative nature. Hammer’s openness to the horror film was due in large part to Carreras’s understanding of the company’s credo: Motion pictures should first and foremost simply entertain and tell a good story. Beginning as a small, relatively poor company with limited capital, Hammer Films turned out low-budget “B” movies following patterns set in Hollywood. A television series, however, became the catalyst for major changes for the company.

In the 1950s, British television produced the successful science fiction series, The Quatermass Experiment, built around the character of Bernard Quatermass. He was a scientist who sent a rocket into space only to have it return with a new form of alien life that took over the body of the surviving astronaut. Hammer brought Quatermass to the screen in 1955 in The Quatermass Xperiment. This was quickly followed by X the Unknown (1956) and Quatermass II (1957). The success of these science fiction “monster” movies suggested that new films with classical horror themes might be equally successful. Universal Pictures, which owned the motion picture rights to both Frankenstein and Dracula at that time, was essentially separating itself from producing horror movies. The owners worked out a deal by which the company sold the rights to Dracula and Frankenstein to Hammer.

In creating the new horror features, Hammer drew upon a French and British stage tradition originally developed at the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris. Grand Guignol emphasized the shock value of presenting gruesome and terrifying scenes to the audience realistically. Vampires were a standard fare of these stage productions. Hammer horrors were in full color. Blood flowed freely and monstrous acts were fully portrayed on screen—not merely implied for the audience to imagine. Hammer then assembled one of the more famous teams ever to work on what would become a series of horror pictures: director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Their first picture was The Curse of Frankenstein, a new version in Technicolor of Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein. It differed markedly from the older Universal version in its graphic depiction of Frankenstein’s monster’s violence, now in full color.

The same team plunged immediately into a second classic horror volume, Dracula, better known under its American title, The Horror of Dracula (1958). Sangster and Fisher decided not to use the play upon which Universal’s Dracula (1931) was based; they also deviated rather freely from Bram Stoker‘s story, which was transformed into the final battle of a long-standing war between Abraham Van Helsing (goodness) and Dracula (evil). The first victim of this war, at least in the segment seen by the audience, was Jonathan Harker, who arrived at Castle Dracula as a secret Van Helsing operative. After he was turned into a vampire, Van Helsing was forced to kill him. The next victim was Lucy Westenra (now called Lucy Holmwood). Before Van Helsing finally defeated Dracula, the war almost claimed the life of Mina Murray (now known as Mina Holmwood).

The Horror of Dracula was even more influenced by Grand Guignol than was The Curse of Frankenstein. Its graphic presentation of gore began with memorable opening frames of dripping red blood and was highlighted by Christopher Lee’s showing his fangs to the audience just before bending over a yielding Mina whom he held tightly in his arms. Vampiric sexuality also was more overt, with the biting as a metaphor for the sex act. Dracula unleashed all of the chaotic life forces, most powerfully symbolized by sex, that society tried to suppress and science attempted to understand and control.

Like The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula was an immense success. It made Christopher Lee an international star in ways his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster had not. And as would be true of other Draculas, Lee’s fans tended to be women, a high percentage of them teenagers. Hammer moved quickly to capitalize on both of its successes, but in the long run Dracula proved to be the more lucrative theme. As Hammer moved ahead with its next vampire (and other horror) movies, it began to encounter problems from censors. It had purchased the rights to I Am Legend, a classic vampire book, and hired its author, Richard Matheson, to work on the screenplay. However, the censor’s office let it be known that the movie would be banned in England, and Hammer stopped filming. The subsequent banning of Mario Bava‘s Italian-made Black Sunday served to inform Hammer of strict limits to what could, for the moment, be put on the screen; thus, for a brief period the company postponed new considerations of the vampire motif. In its second Dracula movie, The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula did not actually appear, though David Peel was present as the Dracula-like Baron Meinster. Meinster succeeded where Dracula failed in his biting of Van Helsing (Cushing); but Van Helsing cauterized the wound, thus preventing the vampire’s affliction from infecting him. Before the successful team from The Horror of Dracula was reassembled, however, Hammer produced the first of its movies with a female vampire, the Kiss of the Vampire (1962), starring Clifford Evans, Edward de Souza, Isobel Black, and Noel Williams as the vampire.

Lee made his return as Dracula in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965). To establish continuity, director Terence Fisher began the new film with footage from the end of The Horror of Dracula. The film also developed one of a series of creative ways to resurrect the dead count. In this case, Dracula’s servant killed a man whose blood was allowed to drip on Dracula’s ashes. This sequel was memorable both for Lee’s impressive performance (though he had few lines) and for the graphic staking of Barbara Shelley by a group of monks, made possible by some easing of the standards of censorship through the decade.

In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Dracula was resurrected by a priest who allowed his blood to drip on the count’s frozen body. (Dracula had died by drowning in an icy pond in Dracula Prince of Darkness.) Meanwhile, Fisher had moved on to other projects and did not direct this film, which marked the beginning of the downward trend that would characterize future vampire movies that Hammer assigned to less-experienced directors. The most memorable scene was Dracula pulling the stake from his own body (a scene Christopher Lee protested at the time). There also was an increasingly explicit depiction of sexual themes. In Dracula Prince of Darkness, Dracula embraced the passive Mina as he bit her. But in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the vampire’s female victims/lovers began to react to the count, signaling their participation in the event and experiencing a sexual thrill from it. The sexual give-and-take of the vampire’s bite became even more graphic in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), which brought the count back to Victorian England. In the film, a member of the British royalty witnessed Count Dracula’s demise, as depicted in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and collected some of his blood and several of his personal possessions. In a magic ceremony, he attempted to revive Dracula by drinking his blood. Dracula arose, but at the cost of his benefactor’s life. Meanwhile, several men who had been privy to the process of resurrecting Dracula stole his ring and cloak. Dracula proceeded to attack the men by way of their two female children. The interaction of Dracula and his female victims suggested a conscious use of vampirism as a symbol responding to new attitudes about sexuality that developed in the late 1960s.

Immediately after Taste the Blood of Dracula, Lee began filming Scars of Dracula (1971) under the direction of Roy Ward Baker. The story was set in Castle Dracula, where a young man, his girlfriend, and several others were exploring. Dracula began to kill them one by one until only the young man stood as a barrier to the woman, the real object of the vampire’s quest. The story of Dracula and the woman, however, became a subplot set in the parentheses of Dracula’s encounter with a more transcendental force—nature. At the beginning of the movie Dracula was awakened by a bolt of lightning that struck his coffin. In the end he was killed by a similar bolt that struck a metal spike he had intended to use on the remaining live male.

Hammer’s most intense attention to vampirism came during the years 1970 to 1972. The studio produced six films, which necessitated going beyond mere variations on the Dracula story. The first choice for a new thrust was Sheridan Le Fanu‘s story, “Carmilla.” Vampire Lovers (1970), possibly the most faithful adaptation of “Carmilla,” opened with the awakening of the vampire Carmilla Karnstein (who assumed an anagram of her name, Mircalla). She had returned to Karnstein Castle in the present, where she was introduced to the social world. She first attracted and then vampirized Laura, the subject of the original story, and then Emma, an acquaintance. Before she was able to kill Emma, however, her work was discovered and a group of male vampire hunters tracked her down in the chapel and killed her. Vampire Lovers reached a new level of sexual explicitness and visual gore. The amply endowed Ingrid Pitt played Mircalla, who seduced Laura (Pippa Steele) and Emma (Madeleine Smith) in scenes with lesbian overtones. Following the trend set in the Dracula movies, the film continued the depiction of blood and violence, especially in the opening and closing scenes during which the vampire was killed.

Carmilla inspired a second film, Lust for a Vampire (1971), a film that gave Jimmy Sangster the opportunity to move from his screenwriting role to directing. The movie, with its standard emphasis on graphic violence, opened with one of the more memorable horror scenes. Mircalla/Carmilla (now played by Yutte Stengaard), Count Karnstein (Mike Raven), and his wife were all awakened by the blood of a sacrificial victim killed over their graves. The revived Mircalla then turned to several males as her victims (rather than her usual female ones); but as the deaths mounted, the villagers discovered her vampirism and killed her and the Karnstein family in a fire. Ingrid Pitt returned to the screen for her second vampire role in 1971 as Elizabeth Bathory in Countess Dracula. The film centered on Bathory’s last years, when she attempted to vampirize teenagers (both male and female) of their youth so that her own beauty and youthful appearance would remain intact. The voluptuous Pitt, transforming back and forth from the aging countess to the rejuvenated vampire, made the film work.

The trend toward violence seemed to peak in the second of the 1971 vampire releases, Vampire Circus. Set in Serbia in 1810, Count Mitterhouse (Robert Tayman), a vampire, was revived and set out to seek revenge on the town he held responsible for his death a century before. The instruments of his revenge were circus performers who had set up their tents to entertain the townspeople. However, the performers soon joined the count in murdering the town’s leading citizens. The bloody murders set the stage for a closing battle scene with aroused villagers attacking the circus. The film ended with Mitterhouse being staked and decapitated.

On the heels of its 1971 successes, Hammer exploited the Dracula theme again with Dracula A.D. 1972, which attempted to bring Dracula into the contemporary world. The film did not deal with the role that Dracula might assume in the complex modern world; rather, it moved a Victorian plot into a contemporary setting. The story concerned Dracula’s emergence among a group of young people in the early 1970s. Constantly encountering hostile, unfamiliar structures that left him ineffective in the present-day world, Dracula vampirized several of the youngsters and used them as his instruments. Peter Cushing returned in his Van Helsing role as the vampire hunter—a dedicated descendent of the original—to track Dracula to his death.

The second 1972 offering to vampire fans was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, the story of a young hero who traveled the country searching out and disposing of vampires. Based in part on American cowboy heroes, Kronos arrived complete with an assistant—for some comic relief. The film’s failure at the box office not only canceled Hammer’s plans for a new series based on Kronos, but in fact, highlighted a significant aspect of the vampire myth. The myth was about vampires and all that they symbolize, not necessarily the destruction of evil.

The 1972 Twins of Evil returned to the story of Carmilla for inspiration. Hammer selected twins Mary and Madeline Collinson to play Mary and Freida Gelhorn. The two were unleashed by Count Karnstein on the local village to avenge the death of the Karnstein family. The spread of the vampire epidemic attracted the Van Helsing-like Gustav Weil (played by Peter Cushing) to mount a crusade to destroy all the vampires. As the plot unfolded, the movie pictured two opposing and ambiguous forces: the vampire and the overly zealous, puritanical vampire hunter—who was himself tainted with evil. The conflict resulted in the death of Count Karnstein and the vampires, along with Weil and some of his cohorts. The twins were relatively innocent bystanders, and one escaped (the other was killed).

Lee’s final appearance in the Hammer Dracula movies occurred in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), also known as Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. Again the scene was contemporary London, where an aging Van Helsing was consulted by Scotland Yard on a black magic group that had come to their attention. His investigation led him, however, to Dracula, who had emerged as a real estate dealer and was surrounded by a group of corrupt (but not vampirized) businessmen. Because of his partners, Dracula escaped Van Helsing’s first attack, which utilized—for some inexplicable reason—a silver bullet (a werewolf remedy). With the aid of his granddaughter, Van Helsing continued the attack. This movie revived an old folk remedy for conquering vampires, as Dracula was led into a hawthorn bush. The vampire world created by Hammer was finally exhausted with a cooperative project between the studio and Shaw Brothers, a massive movie production company in Hong Kong.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) (also known as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula) had Abraham Van Helsing (again portrayed by Peter Cushing) traveling to China to find the elusive Dracula. Early in the film, Van Helsing met Hsu Tien-an, the local vampire hunter. In China, both vampire and vampire hunters naturally knew martial arts, and the film emerged as a feeble attempt to merge the two genres. Needless to say, the film was a commercial failure.

By 1974, at the time it authorized the filming of The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, Hammer Films was in financial trouble. It had hoped that its exploitation of the martial arts theme, added to its tried-and-true vampire theme, would be a great success. Instead, the combination had quite the opposite effect. Warner Bros., which had distributed many of Hammer’s films in America, refused to release this one; and in the end the Chinese vampires merely speeded Hammer’s swift move into bankruptcy in 1975. An era of vampire movies was over. The studio had explored the vampire theme for a generation. Its movies inspired a worldwide boom in vampire (and horror) movies in the 1960s as many directors attempted to copy the Hammer successes. But hampered by low budgets and even lower production values, they rarely reached Hammer’s proficiency.

Hammer was then moved into receivership. In 1975 it was purchased by Ray Skeggs, who set about restructuring the business. The main product of this period was two 1980s television series. The Hammer House of Horror aired thirteen episodes in 1980 and its follow-up, the Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense aired thirteen episodes from 1984–86. After the series, the company seemed moribund. Occasionally announcements of projects that never appeared or rumors of productions circulated, but nothing made it to the screen.

Then in 2007, Dutch producer John De Mol purchased the Hammer Films rights which brought him ownership of some 300 Hammer films. De Mol’s company set plans to restart the studio and produce two to three movies (horror or thrillers) each year. The first new film under the hammer banner was made in 2008. The vampire film Beyond the Rave, premiered free online exclusively on MySpace in April 2008. It came out as a twenty-part serial, with each episode lasting four minutes. Since its original run, the episodes have been available on YouTube. The story concerned a soldier on his last night before shipping out to war. Ed goes searching for his former girlfriend Jen at a rave party led by the mysterious Melech, who turns out to be the leader of a growing vampire community. To get through the evening he must deal both with some mean drug dealers and seductive vampires neither of who have his well being in mind.

As this encyclopedia goes to press, it is yet to be seen if Hammer will return as a force in the horror or vampire entertainment realm. Meanwhile, since the mid 1970s, the memory of Hammer has been kept alive by it fans.

Hammer Fandom: The devoted fans of Hammer Films have organized and created a world of fanzines and collectibles, which in the 1990s was given focus by the Hammer Horror Collector’s Network based in Campbell, California, and supported by the continuing Hammer Films. Since the mid-1970s, a series of Hammer-related periodicals have appeared including The House of Hammer, Hammer Horror, (which ran for seven issues in 1995), Little Shoppe of Horrors, The House that Hammer Built, Dark Terrors, and Behind the Screams. These have been superseded by Hammer’s significant presence on the Internet, sites easily located with any search engine.

The most valued items by collectors are the various movie posters and theater cards, including the ones produced for the non-English releases, and the various novelizations of the later movies that appeared in the 1970s. Among the vampire titles with accompanying novels are Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Lust for a Vampire, and Kronos (a.k.a. Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter). However, over the years a wide variety of products have been produced just for the continuing legion of fans. Topping the list are trading cards, a set of which appeared in 1975 and 1976 from Topps called Shock Theater. These were not widely distributed and are among the most valued items for collectors. There have been two sets—Hammer Horror I and Hammer Horror II—that included posters art and stills from different movies, more than half from the vampire titles. There is also a set of playing cards with stills from the Hammer movies. Since 1997 when a 40th Anniversary set of trading cards appeared, at least three additional sets have manifested the continued fan interest.

There are a variety of histories of Hammer, and several stars, most notably Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, produced autobiographies. Ingrid Pitt, who has her own fan club (Pitt of Horror, P. O. Box 403, Richmond, Surrey, UK TW10 6FW) completed a light-hearted but well-written and researched survey of vampirism. And musical fans can track down Dracula: Classical Scores from Hammer Horror, released by Silva on vinyl in 1989 and on CD in 1993.

Sources:

Eyles, Allen, Robert Adkinson, and Nicolas Fry, eds. The House of Horror: The Story of Hammer Films. London: Lorrimer Publishing Ltd., 1973. 127 pp.
Flynn, John L. Cinematic Vampires. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1992. 320 pp.
Hutchings, Peter. Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993. 193 pp.
Jewel, John. Lips of Blood: An Illustrated Guide to Hammer’s Dracula Movies Starring Christopher Lee. London: Glitter Books, 2002. 136 pp.
Marrero, Robert. Horrors of Hammer. Florida: RGM Publications, 1984. 131 pp.
Maxford, Howard. Hammer, House of Horror: Behind the Screams. London: B. T. Batsford, 1996. 192 pp.
McCarty, John. Hammer Films. Pocket Essentials. Harpenden, Herts., UK: Pocket Essentials, 2002. 95 pp.
Meikle, Denis. A History of Hammer: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer, 1949–1979. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001. 420 pp.
Miller, Mark A. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema: A Filmography of Their 22 Collaborations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1995. 437 pp.
Pohle, Robert W., Jr., and Douglas C. Hart. The Films of Christopher Lee. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1983. 227 pp.
Svekla, Gary J., and Susan Svekla, eds. Memories of Hammer. Baltimore: Luminary Press, 2002. 256 pp.