Monday, October 27, 2008

A History of Hammer Horror Movies Part Two

The Sixties saw Hammer Film Productions at its height. The vast majority of its classic films were released in this decade and more Hammer Films were released in the Sixties than any other decade. The studio had distribution deals with both Universal and Columbia which provided much needed funding for their movies. In the middle of the decade the studio would also have a new deal with Seven Arts, allowing them make some of their finer films. Over all, the Sixties was a very lucrative time for The Studio That Dripped Blood. Unfortunately, disaster loomed over the horizon.

Nineteen sixty one saw Hammer expand beyond Gothic horror into psychological thrillers, with the release of Taste of Fear. These psychological thrillers were shot on shoestring budgets in black and white, and while often compared to the work of Hitchcock, probably owe more to Henri-Georges Clouzot than any other director (particularly his film Les Diaboliques. In all, Hammer would release eight more psychological thrillers: Maniac in 1961, Paranoiac in 1963, Nightmare in 1964, both Fanatic and The Nanny in 1965, Crescendo in 1970, and Fear in the Night.

While best known for their horror movies, Hammer would continue to release films from other genres throughout the decade, including adventure films (Captain Klegg and Wolfshead among them), comedies (A Weekend with Lulu and The Anniversary among them), and science fiction movies (Moon Zero Two). Beginning with One Million Years B.C. in 1966 (starring Raquel Welch), Hammer also released a lucrative series of cave girl movies, such as When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and The Creatures That Time Forgot.

Throughout the Sixties, however, Hammer's bread and butter would remain its Gothic horror movies. As might be expected, then, Hammer Films continued its expansion into the genre in the early Sixties. While Hammer would never remake Universal's Wolf Man, they did produce their own take on the werewolf, released in 1961. Curse of the Werewolf was the first starring role for Oliver Reed. It was loosely based on the novel Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore. Nineteen sixty two would see Hammer continue to expand into the Gothic horror genre. That year they would release a comedy remake of Universal's The Old Dark House, made in conjunction with William Castle. They would also release their own lavish adaptation of Gaston Leroux novel Phantom of the Opera, starring Herbert Lom in the title role.

Unfortunately, 1963 would see Hammer slow its production due to lack of funds. Out of the meagre three feature films the studio released that year, only one was a horror movie (Maniac) and it was not Gothic horror. Fortunately, as mentioned above, a new deal with Seven Arts would bring in much needed cash, allowing Hammer to start producing new Gothic horror films. Nineteen sixty four would see the release of The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb and The Gorgon (Hammer's take on the legendary Greek monster). In the following years Hammer would release such Gothic horror movies as The Plague of the Zombies (Hammer's exploration of voodoo and zombies, which would prove influential in the genre), Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Mummy's Shroud, and The Devil Rides Out. Devil Rides Out, released in 1968, is remarkable as one of the studio's finest movies. Based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley, Hammer thought of producing the movie as early as 1963. At that time, however, it was feared that the British censors would not be comfortable with the Satanism portrayed in the book. By 1968 censorship in the United Kingdom had eased so that Hammer was able to go ahead with the film. It was well received by critics and has been said by Christopher Lee to be his favourite film of those in which he has appeared.

Perhaps unfortunately, the mid-Sixties would see Hammer begin releasing more sequels. The Evil of Frankenstein was released in 1964, followed by Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967 and yet others. Christopher Lee would reprise his role as Dracula in Dracula Prince of Darkness in 1966, followed by six more sequels. The sequels would vary a good deal in quality. Some, such as Frankenstein Created Woman, would actually receive in acclaim. Others, such as The Evil of Frankenstein and Dracula A.D. 1972, are disliked by fans and critics in equal measure. Oddly enough, one of Hammer's finest vampire movies started out as a sequel to The Brides of Dracula, again without the Count. The Kiss of the Vampire began life as a Dracula sequel, although in the final draught screenwriter Anthony Hinds would remove all references to the Count. The movie is one of the best ever made by Hammer, and was fairly original at the time in its treatment of vampirism as a disease.

While Hammer was doing well in the Sixties, Exclusive was not. Since Hammer had largely switched to American distributors, its original distributor and the company responsible for its resurrection, Exclusive Films, lay dormant. The company was liquidated in 1968, eight years after it distributed its last film (Murder at Site 3 for Francis Searle Productions).

It would be in 1968 that Hammer would make its first successful venture into television. The TV series Journey to the Unknown was produced in conjunction with Twentieth Century Fox and the American Broadcasting Company. It aired for one season on ABC in the United States during the 1968/1969 season. In the United Kingdom it would show up occasionally on various ITV stations.

Unfortunately for Hammer, the Sixties would also see events that would lead to their undoing. Colour television had been introduced in the United Kingdom in 1967, causing a decline in the profits British films saw in Britain. This would effectively mean an end to the boom the British film industry had experienced since the late Fifties. And while much of what drew people to Hammer's horror movies was their graphic (at the time) portrayal of violence, Hollywood films such as Bonnie and Clyde (released in 1967) and The Wild Bunch (released in 1968) would increase the amount of bloodshed in mainstream American movies. The final nail in Hammer's coffin may have been Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski's 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin's novel. The film marked a move away from Gothic horror to more subtle, literate, and artistic horror movies. Other studios had already largely abandoned the genre, it seemed Gothic horror was largely on the way out.

Hammer soon realised that they would have to adapt to the Seventies if they wished to compete in that decade. Initially, this involved increasing the amount of violence in their films. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a perfect example of this. In the film Dr. Frankenstein not only commits murder, but commits rape as well (a scene which Peter Cushing deplored). It soon became apparent, however, that upping the amount of violence in their films was not helping them at the box office. The Studio That Dripped Blood then turned to sex. The Vampire Lovers (based on Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and released in 1970), Lust for a Vampire (released in 1971), and Twins of Evil (released later in 1971), collectively known as "The Karnstein Trilogy (they are all interlinked by the Karnstein family)," contained more nudity than any Hammer film up to their time. They also featured the most explicit portrayal of lesbianism seen in mainstream movies made in English. The Karnstein Trilogy is a matter of debate among Hammer films. Some like the movies, other do not. Another film which involved a good deal of sex was Countess Dracula. Like Vampire Lovers, it starred Ingrid Pitt, this time as a character based on the historical Countess Elizabeth Bathory (who killed a number of young girls, it is said because she believed that by bathing in their blood she could preserve her youth).

While some consider The Karnstein Trilogy to be a low point in Hammer Films history, there can be no denying that the studio could still be creative and original in the Seventies. Part of this was due to the introduction of new blood into the studio. Among this new blood was veteran producer of The Avengers Brian Clemens. Clemens would write and produce two films for Hammer Film Productions (one of which he also directed). The first was Dr. Jekyll, Sister Hyde released in 1971, which featured the unique twist of having the doctor become a beautiful, if evil, woman instead of a monster. The second was Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter. Arguably Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter was not only among Clemens' best work, but among Hammer's best work as well. Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter centred on an unusual vampire hunter battling a new sort of vampire. In the film, Clemens effectively turns many of Hammer's clichés on their head. Sadly, both Dr. Jekyll, Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter failed at the box office. Another person new to Hammer, was Robert Young. Young would only direct one feature film for Hammer and one episode of Hammer House of Horror. The film he directed for Hammer, however, was starkly original. Vampire Circus, released in 1972, focused on a circus travelling through 19th century Europe in which all the performers are vampires, even the animals! The idea might sound hokey, but it works due to a touch of surrealism and an interesting take on vampire lore.

Hammer would produce other original films in the Seventies beyond these few. Hands of the Ripper, released in 1971, was Hammer's exploration of the effect of her father's occupation on the daughter of Jack the Ripper. Another starkly original film was Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, released in 1974. Produced in conjunction with the Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong, the film was the final sequel to Dracula. It was released at the height of the kung fu craze and, as might be expected of a Hammer Film Productions/Shaw Brothers production, sought to combine Hammer Horror with Shaw Brothers kung fu action. Peter Cushing returned as Dr. Van Helsing, this time fighting vampires in China. Christopher Lee did not return as Dracula in the movie, John Forbes-Robertson assuming the role instead. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires has a reputation of being an absolutely dreadful film, a reputation I suspect it does not deserve. Although far from perfect, the movie is interesting, original, and entertaining. I suspect its reputation as an awful movie is based entirely on the American version, 7 Brothers Versus Dracula, which cut sixteen minutes from the film and rearranged scenes, making the movie incomprehensible.

Despite a large degree of creativity and originality still existing at the studio, Hammer continued to do poorly as the Seventies progressed. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Kronos, Vampire Circus, and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires all failed at the box office. The situation would perhaps not been so dire had the various sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula not declined in quality. Horror of Frankenstein, released in 1970, was a parody and remake of The Curse of Frankenstein and the only Hammer Frankenstein movie which did not feature Peter Cushing as the doctor (Ralph Bates played the role). The film is regarded by many as one of the lesser sequels. The sequels to Dracula would fare even worse. This was particularly the case with the two sequels set in contemporary times, Dracula A.D. 1972 (released in 1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (released in 1973). The two films emerged as a result of the success of Count Yorga, Vampire (released in 1970)), a vampire story set in modern times. With that film's success Warner Brothers (who had been sold to Seven Arts Productions in 1966) requested that Hammer Films make two movies featuring Dracula in contemporary London. The two films are now regarded as the worst of the sequels. Lee eventually grew so dissatisfied with the quality of the Dracula sequels that he decided The Satanic Rites of Dracula would be his last.

If there was a year that indicated Hammer was on its last legs, it may well have been 1973. That year was the first in over a decade that Hammer released no horror movies of any kind. Instead, its entire output that year were big screen adaptations of British sitcoms (such as Man at the Top and That's Your Funeral), a somewhat lucrative business launched when the studio adapted On the Buses for the big screen in 1971. In 1974 Hammer would return with such horror movies as Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter, but they released nothing in 1975 whatsoever. Nineteen seventy six would see their final horror movie of the Twentieth Century. To the Devil a Daughter was based on Dennis Wheatley's novel of the same name (the same writer who had written the novel upon which The Devil Rides Out was based). Like the novel, the film involved Satanists plotting to use the body of a young girl (Nastassja Kinski in an early role) as the avatar of Satan on Earth. This has led some to think it was a Rosemary's Baby rip off, when Wheatley had written To the Devil a Daughterin 1954. That having been said, with To the Devil a Daughter Hammer eschewed their usual style in attempt to follow in the footsteps of such horror movies as Rosemary's Baby. The combination did not work and To the Devil a Daughter failed at the box office.

Hammer would make only one more feature film in the twentieth century. The Lady Vanishes, released in 1979, was a remake of the 1938 Hitchcock movie of the same name. It starred Elliot Gould, Cybill Shepherd, and Angela Lansbury. The movie was not only poorly received by critics, but bombed at the box office. In the process, it almost bankrupted Hammer.

Hammer's output was exceedingly meagre for the rest of the twentieth century and none of it involved feature films. In 1980 Hammer Film Productions re-entered the field of television with Hammer House of Horror. The series ran for 13 episodes. They followed Hammer House of Horror with another anthology series, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, in 1984. It also ran for 13 episodes. In the United States the episodes were expanded to ninety minutes and ran under the title Fox Mystery Theatre.

After producing the two television series Hammer would only offer up two more productions. The first was the documentary TV series The World of Hammer, each episode of which explored a different aspect of Hammer's long career. It debuted in 1990. The second was a television documentary, Flesh and Blood: the Hammer Heritage of Horror, which first aired in 1994. Since that time Hammer Film Productions would spend most of its time dormant, although it would change hands.

In 2000 the company was sold to a consortium of private investors. They announced plans to take Hammer Films back into movie production, but no movies emerged. On May 10, 2007 there came an announcement that Dutch producer John De Mol (best known as the creator of the reality show Big Brother) had purchased Hammer Film Productions. The studio was immediately put back into production, co-producing the internet serial Beyond the Rave with MySpace. This year they began production on their first feature film in twenty nine years and their first horror movie in thirty two years. The Wake Wood will be released in the fall of 2009. Hammer also acquired the rights to remake the Swedish vampire film Lat den rätte komma in (literally Let the Right One Come in), which in turn based on a novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist. It would seem, then, that Hammer has risen from the grave.

Since its founding in 1934, Hammer Film Productions has had a remarkable history, perhaps even a singular history. Universal Studios was a major Hollywood studio when it started making its classic horror movies in the Thirties. On the other hand, Hammer had to rise from a small studio that made quickies to a successful studio that made hit horror movies. What is more, Hammer made its horror movies with a distinctive style, with an emphasis on lighting and vivid use of colour. The studio also introduced gore into the horror film, being the one of the firsts to do so in colour. They also sparked a new cycle of Gothic horror films, in which American International, Amicus, and Tigon would all take part. One can only hope that with Wake of the Wood they not only return to their previous success, but the previous quality of their films as well. If Hammer Film Productions proved influential, it was largely because they made good horror movies that would become classics. After all, there is a reason that Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula are still so highly regarded today.


J. Marquis said...

Have you ever seen "The Devil Rides Out"?

Mercurie said...

Yes, I've seen it. It's one of my favourite Hammer films. Sadly, it's been years since I last saw it. I don't have it on DVD like Kronos or VHS like Dracula and some of the other Hammer films.