Hammer Horror Films were atmospheric, moody, bloody, and filled with overt sexual voraciousness. We thought this might be a good time to look back at it, and some of our favorite moments from Hammer themselves.
If you’ve never seen a Hammer film or maybe just looking to revisit a couple, take a look at some of the better movies to come out of the British Horror Factory:
The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)
The one that started it all. Hammer’s first foray into the classic horror monsters brought a brutal and violent edge to the story of Victor Frankenstein and his cursed Creature. The movie is brimming with color and sullied with the dirt and grime of dug-graves and acidic-laden laboratories. It was also the first outing of the now iconic Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The sadness of the creature in this version is only matched by his outright violence towards an incredibly more sadistic Frankenstein than Universal Studios ever produced. Though they sacrificed much of the poetry of words and images, they make up for it with the visceral quality of the visuals and gory details. As if Mary Shelley’s tale had been dipped in candy-colored blood.
Horror Of Dracula (1958)
Another of the studio’s forays into the classic Universal monster territory, Terence Fisher’s Horror Of Dracula (aptly named in the US so as not to confuse audiences it was a re-release of the Bela Lugosi classic). This Dracula is infused with full-bloodied color with a massively iconic depiction of the count by the legendary Christopher Lee who injects feral intimidation into his interpretation. Again, the film is notable for pushing the envelope of violence depicted on screen. The film almost dared you to keep watching; in one scene Lee’s Dracula enters the room of the awaiting Mina, closing the door behind him. In any previous iteration, this is where the scene would end but the film jump-cuts into the room, music swelling, as the vampire closes in on his prey. The two-hitter that was Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula was a yell heard across the world, announcing Hammer as the new standard in horror.
Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958)
Picking up literally right after Curse Of Frankenstein, the titular mad Doctor escapes the guillotine only to run amok and continue his unholy experiments of resurrection. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster delineates from the older Universal films by setting the focus strictly on Baron Frankenstein (again played here by Peter Cushing). What Revenge Of Frankenstein did was show that not all monsters are deformed creatures, hairy wolves or undead bloodsuckers. Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein became the franchise’s true villain. Cushing may be the highlight of the film that is seemingly lacking in plot (the movie is really about a single incident in the life of Frankenstein), but what is on display is a well-tailored film. It’s Fisher and Cushing’s delicacy, insight, and humor into Frankenstein’s own precision that makes the film a great jab at a character that becomes a scourge of the bourgeoisie.
The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll (1960)
There have been countless adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella about the id of humanity run amok, but here we are given the inherently good Dr. Henry Jekyll as a meek, timid and bland characterization. This works all the better when Paul Massie’s performance switches gears and he really lets loose as the villainous Hyde. Again, a vast contrast to earlier versions, this Hyde is a dashing Lothario, making him both deadly and irresistible. There are also two other Hammer staples in the form of Christopher Lee, in a supporting role written specifically for him and Oliver Reed, appearing here in an early speaking part. The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll is a worthy viewing for anyone looking for delineations and riffs on the source material and for one wonderfully violent scene on a balcony.
The Brides Of Dracula (1960)
Some say Brides Of Dracula is quite possibly Hammer’s finest horror picture. All the familiar trappings of any successful Hammer horror are present; from the set design and costuming to the horror action, it is all top-notch for the era. We get an even eerier aristocratic vampire villain with a sordid family background than Christopher Lee’s mostly silent Dracula. The villain, Baron Meinster (If it sounds like ‘monster’, that’s probably intentional) takes on the role and offers a little bit more in the physical action department than Lee’s interpretation had done previously. The Brides of Dracula also showcases Cushing as the titular Van Helsing once more. This film appears in The Matrix Reloaded as a possible visual explanation that an older version of the Matrix may have been inhabited by the likes of “werewolves” and “vampires.”
The Curse Of The Werewolf (1961)
Although George Wagner and Curt Siodmak 1941’s The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. – playing the first of his five appearances as the titular werewolf – may be the most famous werewolf movie, Hammer’s Spain-set tale takes a deceptively different approach. When a beggar is imprisoned by a tyrannical nobleman – after years of being forgotten in his cell – the feral nature of the man is revealed. And the beggar, who is now more beast than man, impregnates the jailer’s daughter after violently raping her. She gives birth and later dies, but not before the baby is adopted by a gentleman-scholar named Don Alfredo Corledo. The child, named Leon (played by Hammer’s Oliver Reed) grows up under cursed circumstances. As he matures he finds himself unwillingly transforming into a gruesome werewolf, ravenous and blood-thirsty. Again directed by Terence Fisher, who injects a richly detailed visual style, enhanced by Arthur Grant’s widescreen Technicolor cinematography. The film overlaps Christianity and peasant superstition in unexpectedly complex ways, many of which are borrowed from Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf Of Paris. If you’re looking for an odd, at times violently surreal take on the Werewolf legend look no further than The Curse Of The Werewolf from Hammer Studios.
Taste Of Fear (1961)
Known in the US as Scream Of Fear, Seth Holt’s film is a stark departure from this list. A black-and-white, modern-set tale of a woman confined to a wheelchair who begins to see apparitions around an old manor house, particularly in the form of her late father. The film stars Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, and Christopher Lee, the latter, one of Hammer’s most bankable stars, in a supporting role. Lee later admitted that he thought Taste Of Fear “was the best film that I was in that Hammer ever made […] It had the best director, the best cast, and the best story.” Aside from Lee, though, there isn’t really a whole lot of Hammer horror that most were used to at the time. Taste Of Fear favors taut psychological thrills instead of the lurid monster flicks about Dracula and werewolves that otherwise typified the studio’s output. It’s a real gem, a perfect riff on Henri-George Clouzot’s classic Les Diaboliques.
Night Creatures (1962)
Another departure for Hammer, this early sixties film starring Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Oliver Reed, and Patrick Allen is loosely based on the tale of Doctor Syn, an 18th-century smuggler hero from a series of novels by Russell Thorndike. That trademark Hammer Gothic feel still permeates this otherwise more subdued period-piece, though. Apart from the opening moments showcasing a horde of horse-riding skeletons scaring a man-on-the-run into the boggy swamp, there really isn’t a whole lot of horror or thriller elements to Night Creatures. Again, the joy comes in the production, as Cushing’s Doctor Syn hides something from his past from the Royal Crown guards who have invaded the quaint village. A melodrama filled with pastiche skulduggery and Hammer acting staples.
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock changed the face of cinema with the release of Psycho. With that came a slew of imitators such as William Castle’s Homicidal and this stark, modern-set film from Hammer studios. Paranoiac was written by Jimmy Sangster – based loosely on the 1949 crime novel Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey – and follows a wealthy psychotic (played again by Hammer staple Oliver Reed) who is coddled by his mother in their palatial mansion outside of London. One day, Reed’s long lost brother mysteriously arrives at the house, but events prove that he is an impostor, sent by the son of the attorney for the family estate, who has been dipping into the family trust fund. Filled with incredibly unsettling images (the ending is still pretty palpable), Paranoiac fits really nicely with Taste Of Fear with its emphasis on black-and-white photography and contemporary thrills over blood-curdling monsters.
The Gorgon (1964)
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, along with director Terence Fisher, were the team to beat at the studio. Though The Gorgon is often criticized for its lackluster reveal of the monster, the overall mood of the movie cannot be denied. The film’s subject matter and its overall tone are infused with a sense of fear so palpable that characters are literally turned to stone. Cushing’s character is dealing with inner-demons while Lee is rather straightforward for a Hammer horror. The impressive mix of characters, action, and thrills ends with what is a memorably bleak ending, even by horror standards.
The Plague Of The Zombies (1966)
When locals refuse to work in the village Lord’s hazardous tin mines, he kills and resurrects them with voodoo rites. With an utterly chilling dream sequence and a genuine sense of dread, this film was a definite influence on George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. This film was shot so quickly that the same sets were utilized for The Reptile at the same time. Plague Of The Zombies was Hammer’s most memorable foray into the now overwrought sub-genre of “zombie horror.”
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Writer Richard Matheson scripted this film about a satanic cult being foiled by a skilled professor of all things magic and the occult. Christopher Lee and Charles Gray (where’s your neck?) both give their sophisticated best, with Lee portraying one of his better roles that didn’t require him to wear fangs, scars, or bandages. The set-pieces are imaginative and showcase a vast amount of satanic symbolism as well as an all-around genuine camaraderie between the strong cast. Also notable as one of the most thoughtful and serious attempts to realistically portray the practice of magic both satanic and divine. The film was re-titled as The Devil’s Bride in America so as not to confuse audiences, who might have assumed the film was a western.
The list could go on; mentioning any of the seven more times Christopher Lee donned the cape of Dracula, or Hammer’s many forays into Black & White psychological horror such as Nightmare or Scream Of Fear, or or the vastly underappreciated Hands Of The Ripper.
Just get out there and see a few for yourself. Who knows, you may like what you see. Hammer horror films were ahead of their time, and no other studio has been as successful at producing quality, low-budget horror films for the masses since.
Images: Hammer Studios, Universal Studios, Warner Bros.