Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Petri Dish 101: Hammer Films

This is for my east coast pal Jasper, who's looking for some background and recommendations on Hammer Films.

Simply put, there would be no British horror cinema without Hammer Studios. This small independent movie company was formed in the early '30's, initially financing and producing budget B pictures in various genres for almost two decades before strategy and fate intersected to make Hammer a buzzword for chills, and a formative influence on the modern horror film.

In 1955 the company released The Creeping Unknown, a solid science-fiction thriller based upon the popular BBC radio and TV character, Professor Quatermass. In the movie, Quatermass (played by US character actor Brian Donlevy) observes a young astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) who's returned from a space mission and is gradually mutating into, well, something creeping and unknown. This inexpensive but very effective genre exercise made considerable jack for the young studio, and an equally successful Quatermass followup, The Enemy from Space, duplicated the first Quatermass adventure's good fortune.

Bolstered by the ample box office take on the Quatermass movies, Hammer dove into the horror genre with its 1957 production, The Curse of Frankenstein. Shot in vivid Eastman Color, Curse was a massive and influential hit, providing the template for most of Hammer's output for the next two decades.

Hammer's work in the genre essentially turbocharged (conservative critics of the time would say bastardized) the long-entrenched notion of the Creature Feature. Most of the traditional horror staples--Frankenstein's Monster, the Werewolf, Dracula, the Mummy, et al--were augmented with liberal-for-the-time sprinklings of sex and violence, and decidedly adult plot twists. These basic elements gave the studio's horror output a timbre completely distinctive from the atmospheric and expressionistic Universal horrors of the '30's and '40's. Eschewing nuance and subtlety, the Hammer epics were color-saturated pulp horror novels come to life--violent, direct, but still solidly (often artfully) constructed shockers.

In today's hyper-permissive atmosphere of jaded, anything-goes onscreen violence (cinematic and televised), these British chillers look fairly tame; it's hard to convey just how much visceral impact Hammer's classic output had on the world at the time. But the British studio's genre exercises changed movies for good, pushing the envelope of acceptible content in mainstream cinema and inspiring a boom in horror films worldwide. Italy, Germany, and scores of Asian countries took elements of the Hammer formula and co-opted them for their own homegrown horrors. The ripples can still be felt in many horror movies today.

Like Universal Studios before them, Hammer Films managed to create its own stable of formidable talent (both in front of and behind the camera). Front, center, and spotlit in most of the company's finest thrillers were actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing--lithe, fine-boned, expressive--and Lee--coolly handsome and graced with animal charisma to match his imposing six-foot-plus frame--provided the yin/yang force in nearly all of Hammer's greatest efforts.

Hammer's reign as a formidable force in fear flicks ran from The Creeping Unknown to 1976's release of To the Devil, a Daughter, an unremarkable Exorcist-knockoff featuring Lee and a young Nastassja Kinski. In between those years, the studio provided some classic moments.

Most of the Hammer classics can be readily located on DVD. Warner Home Video owns the rights to many of the essential Hammers, and their re-issues sport gorgeous color transfers, but the skimpy extras and attractive-but-error-laden packaging (stills from entirely different movies grace some of the box backs) smack of carelessness. Anchor Bay Home Video's Hammer discs, on the other hand, often feature commentary, documentaries, interviews, and nice prints to boot, wrapping even the most unmemorable Hammer shockers in the proverbial shiny and irresistible box. The single-disc Anchor Bay Hammers are becoming rare birds, but several of their two-disc double bills can still be acquired through Amazon, Ebay, and certain retail stores without breaking the bank.

Like Universal's Golden Era horror output, there's entertainment to be found in almost every Hammer production, but below are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order):

Curse of Frankenstein (available on Warner Home Video DVD, originally released 1957): The first two Quatermass films lit the fuse, but this updating of the Mary Shelley chestnut was the first monster hit (pardon the pun) of the Hammer Horror years. The splashy Eastmancolor, splashes of blood, gruesome Phil Leakey makeup (Christopher Lee's monster really looked like it was stitched together from corpses), director Terence Fisher's rat-a-tat pacing, and James Bernard's snare-drum-punctuated musical score established the template for the studio's best work. Cushing's intense and memorable Doctor Frankenstein would become one of the studio's most durable characters, surviving to re-animate again in five sequels.

Horror of Dracula (Warner Home Video, 1958): Horror of Dracula distilled Bram Stoker's Dracula down to a breathlessly-paced speedball of a vampire flick. Cushing created his second iconic character for the studio as the earnest and intrepid vampire hunter Van Helsing, and Christopher Lee first emerged as a horror star in his own right as Dracula; only Lugosi's original prince of the undead is as revered a bloodsucker in the horror canon. The thrilling climax has yet to be rivalled by any other vampire movie.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Warner Home Video, 1968): I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the sometimes-heavyhanded but always entertaining third Lee Dracula epic. It showcases a brilliant opening setpiece (I won't drop a spoiler if you haven't seen it yet, but it involves a church bell), and an interesting atheistic hero (Barry Andrews) forced to confront his own skepticism in combat with the Undead.

Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Why this excellent horror/tragedy hasn't seen DVD release to date is beyond me. After a few years of turning in bit work at Hammer, the great Oliver Reed graduated to leading man status as Leon, the anguished sufferer of the titular curse. Fisher and his crew created a richly gothic Spain on a limited budget, and John Elder's loose screenplay adaptation of Guy Endore's novel, The Werewolf of Paris, captured the mood of a dark fairy tale more than any of Hammer's other films (Neil Jordan's arthouse horror flick A Company of Wolves owes Curse of the Werewolf a major debt in tone if not content).

Rasputin the Mad Monk (Anchor Bay Video, 1965): Historical accuracy be damned; this rousing sorta-horror opus presented Christopher Lee one of his meatiest and most entertaining star turns as the legendary crazed cleric. Anchor Bay's disc features thoughtful commentary by the genre icon, too.

The Mummy (Warner Home Video, 1959): Lee assumes the bandages in the title role, and Cushing plays the scientist at the center of the revived corpse's campaign of revenge. No masterpiece, but great colorful fun. Lee manages to milk quite a bit of emotion through his makeup as the mummy, and finds a glimmer of pathos as the pre-mummified, lovesick priest in flashback scenes.

Paranoiac (1963): In addition to its successful gothic horrors, Hammer also explored psychological thrillers in the wake of Psycho. Eleanor (Janette Scott) stands to inherit a boatload of money from her recently-departed parents, but her greedy brother Simon (Oliver Reed) has other plans. Then there's her deceased brother Tony, who may not be so deceased...Formula stuff to be sure, but Director Freddie Francis (also an Oscar-winning cinematographer) and frequent Hammer scripter Jimmy Sangster keep you guessing, and Reed gives another great full-throttle early performance. Here's to hoping this one pops up on domestic DVD soon.

Brides of Dracula (1960): The first sequel to Horror of Dracula suffers a wee bit from the absence of Lee (David Peel subs as the vampiric Baron Meinster), but it's the most action-packed of the subsequent Hammer vampire epics. Cushing's wiry and vital Energizer Bunny of a Van Helsing takes on bloodsucking hordes with his bare hands, and even sears his own throat with a red-hot poker to spiritually cauterize a vamp bite. Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing wishes he were one one-hundredth as cool. Not yet available on DVD!

The Devil Rides Out (Anchor Bay Video, 1967): Lee gets to play good-guy for a change as the stolid Duc de Richeleau in this exciting adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel. The Duke takes on a coven of Satanists led by the charming but dangerous Mocata (Charles Gray) for the soul of a close friend (Patrick Mower). Gray, better known to today's movie fans as the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and as Blofeld in a couple of Bond efforts, creates one of Hammer's most sublime screen villains as the silken-voiced Satanic high priest.

Frankenstein Created Woman (Anchor Bay Video, 1967): This imaginative sequel finds Cushing's limb-stitching mad scientist performing a mind transferral from a falsely-executed young man into the body of his girlfriend (Susan Denberg), a recent suicide: Revenge-stoked mayhem ensues. Woman presents one of the most creative--and affecting--storylines in the Hammer Gothic canon, with Playboy model Denberg delivering a sympathetic characterization as the very conflicted monster/victim. Fisher really maintains the dark fairy tale atmosphere here.

Quatermass and the Pit (AKA Five Million Years to Earth, Anchor Bay Video, 1967): Twelve years after the first Quatermass movie jump-started Hammer, the studio returned to the character for Quatermass and the Pit, by far the best of the Quatermass features and one of the best sci-fi flicks of the sixties. A construction crew in London stumbles upon an ancient spaceship, and Quatermass (Andrew Keir plays the good professor this time out) and fellow scientist Dr. Roney (James Donald) investigate. Along the way, the mythology of evil and the very foundation of the origins of man are called into question. Ambitious yet still rip-roaring good entertainment, sharply directed by Roy Ward Baker.

The Vampire Lovers (MGM/UA Home Video, 1970): Roy Ward Baker's next fantastic film, an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's short story Carmilla, was one of the last of the studio's efforts to treat the gothic horror genre with some sincerity. Soon afterwards, Dracula was slugging it out in modern times in Dracula A.D. 1972, and Frankenstein got the camp treatment in the unsuccessful Hammer spoof, Horror of Frankenstein. The Vampire Lovers made waves for being the first Hammer horror to feature nudity, but what stands out most in hindsight is the dreamlike atmosphere sustained by Baker in some of the best scenes, and the charismatic performance of Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla. Sometimes her histrionics induce unintended giggles, but she's sensual (even with her clothes on), predatory, yet surprisingly vulnerable,crying tears of self-pity at a funeral, then turning terrifyingly lethal on a dime.


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