Sunday, October 26, 2008

A History of Hammer Horror Movies Part One

When people think of horror movies, they are inclined to think of two studios. One is Universal, which produced many of the genre's classics in the Thirties and the Forties. The other is the British studio Hammer Films, which produced its own number of classics in the Fifties and Sixties. Hammer introduced a number of innovations to the horror movie genre. Among other things, they were the first studio to shoot Gothic horror films in colour. Prior to the Hammer horror movies, the vast majority of Gothic horror movies were shot in black and white. Shot in colour, the Hammer films were also more violent than previous movies in the genre. Most horror films up to the Fifties either eschewed showing blood or, being shot in black and white, minimised its impact. In the Hammer movies, blood was not only displayed in vivid red, but more of it was displayed on the screen than had been seen before. Hammer Films also added a hint of sex to the horror genre, something which had rarely been seen before.

The origins of Hammer can be traced back to Enrique Carreras and William Hinds. A immigrant to Britain from Spain, Enrique Carreras went into the theatre business in 1913 with the purchase of a cinema in Hammersmith. Carreras' one theatre eventually grew into a chain. William Hinds was co-owner with his brother Frank of Hinds Jewellery. He also performed in music halls and theatres under the name "Will Hammer." It was in November 1934 that Hinds founded Hammer Productions Ltd. Production began on their first release shortly thereafter, the comedy The Public Life of Henry the Ninth. It was in 1935 that Hinds met Carreras, who was interested in expanding into the film industry. Together they formed Exclusive Films Ltd., a movie distribution company. Although Hammer Productions Ltd. and Exclusive Films Ltd. remained separate companies, they were very closely associated with each other.

In the late Thirties Hammer Productions Ltd. released a few films, most notably The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, starring Bela Lugosi, and Song of Freedom, starring Paul Robeson. Unfortunately, the British film industry would fail with the approach of World War II. This would affect Hammer Productions Ltd., which would file for bankruptcy in 1937. Exclusive Films Ltd. survived as a film distributor and continued to distribute films made by other companies. In 1938 the son of Enrique Carreras, James Carreras, joined the company. William Hinds' son, Anthony Hinds, would join the company shortly thereafter. Both men served in World War II. In 1945 James Carreras' son, Michael Carreras, would join the company as its director of publicity.

Following World War II, James Carreras reformed Hammer in 1947 as a subsidiary of Exclusive Films Ltd. Exclusive would finally register Hammer Film Productions as a company in 1949. The original purpose of Hammer was to produce B-movies, whose primary purpose was simply to fill theatre programmes. The new company was soon at work producing films such as Death in High Heels and movies based on the British radio show Dick Barton--Special Agent (a predecessor of sorts of James Bond). Having not been registered until 1949, however, the first movie to officially bear the name Hammer Film Productions was Dr. Morelle, released in that same year (also based on a British radio show character, in this case criminologist Dr. Morelle).

During this period Hammer Films produced a variety of genres, although many of its movies would be crime dramas, thrillers, and mysteries. In 1953 the company released its first venture into science fiction and the first British sci-fi film since Things to Come, Spaceways. They would venture into science fiction again, as well as horror, with their adaptation of the popular BBC television serial The Quatermass Experiment. First broadcast in 1953, the serial was enormously popular and would inspire a number of sequels. To take advantage of the British film industry's then new X certificate for horror movies, Hammer christened their adaptation of serial The Quatermass Xperiment, released in 1955. The Quatermass Experiment was successful enough that Hammer wanted to do a sequel. Unfortunately for Hammer, Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass) refused the company the rights. As a result, the intended Quatermass Xperiment sequel became X the Unknown, released in 1956. Like The Quatermass Xperiment, X the Unknown also ventured into the territory of horror. It was in 1954 that Hammer released its first colour film, The Men of Sherwood Forest, based on the Robin Hood legend.

It would be in the mid-Fifties that Hammer would strike a deal with Associated Artists Pictures (AAP) to promote their films in the United States. It would be this deal with AAP that would turn Hammer Films into one of the great horror movies studios. About the same time producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky submitted a screenplay adapting the novel Frankenstein to AAP. When AAP rejected it on the grounds that Rosenberg and Subotsky had produced only one feature film, the two men submitted it to Hammer Films instead. Hammer would not produce the film, initially called Frankenstein and the Monster, without difficulties. Michael Carreras thought that the script was badly formatted, sometimes leaving out whether a scene was set at day or night among other things. Anthony Hinds worried that the screenplay followed Universal's classic adaptation from 1931 a bit too closely, which could result in a copyright infringement lawsuit if the script was produced as it was written. Eventually Anthony Hinds brought screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (who had written X the Unknown to rewrite the screenplay). Hinds was impressed enough with Sangster's screenplay that he reversed his decision to produce it as a B-movie shot in black and white. The Curse of Frankenstein would be Hammer's first horror movie shot in colour.

The Curse of Frankenstein would be a pivotal film for both Hammer Films and the horror genre. As noted above, it was shot in colour, whereas previous Gothic horror movies were shot primarily in black and white. It also contained much more blood than previous Gothic horror films. Featuring Hazel Court as Frankenstein's fiancee Elizabeth, it also introduced a bit more sex than had previously been seen in Gothic horror films. The Curse of Frankenstein would also establish the style for which Hammer became known. Although shot on a modest budget, the sets had a lavish look about them that made the film look more expensive than it really was. The Curse of Frankenstein would be hugely successful not only in the United Kingdom as well, not only starting Hammer's successful run of horror movies in the late Sixties and into the Fifties, but starting a new cycle of Gothic horror movies as well.

Hammer would venture into horror again with the official sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment, an adaptation of the 1955 BBC television serial Quatermass II. This serial would see Dr. Quatermass facing an alien plot that foresaw Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which high ranking British officials are being taken over by extraterrestrials. The film was released in 1957. Hammer's next horror movie was The Abominable Snowman, released the same year.

Having produced a phenomenally successful adaptation of Frankenstein, Hammer then decided to produce its own version of Dracula. This meant that Hammer would once more have to deal with Universal to insure that there were no similarities between the 1931 Universal film and Hammer's intended movie. And despite the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer had difficulty finding financing for their production of Dracula. Eventually Hammer received money from the National Film Finance Council and a bit more money from Universal in trade for the movie's worldwide distribution rights. Like The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula once more featured Peter Cushing (who had played Dr. Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (who had played the Creature) as Van Helsing and Dracula respectively. Dracula (released in the United States as The Horror of Dracula) would prove even more successful than The Curse of Frankenstein. Released in 1958, it was largely responsible for turning Christopher Lee into a horror icon, perhaps the only actor as identified with the role of Dracula as Bela Lugosi. It also reaffirmed Hammer as a maker of fine, if violent (for the era) Gothic horror movies. Hammer released a sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein. The studio also made their first venture into television, with a failed pilot for a series to be called Tales of Frankenstein.

By 1959, Hammer Films would be well established as a studio which produced Gothic horror movies. That year saw the studio release its own adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (based on the play The Man in Half Moon Street by Barre Lyndon). It also released its own version of The Mummy, having received permission from Universal to remake any of its classics. The film was not so much a remake of Universal's 1932 film, however, as it was The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Tomb (the mummy in the film is Kharis, not Imhotep). Like The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula before it, The Mummy proved successful, although it did not inspire a number of sequels as the other two films did (Hammer's other mummy movies were unrelated to The Mummy. During the late Fifties Hammer continued to produce non-horror films as well, including comedies and war dramas.

The Sixties would see Hammer continue to produce Gothic horror films in greater and greater numbers. Many of these would be sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. In fact, the studio would begin the decade with its first sequel to Dracula. Christopher Lee would not appear in this sequel (supposedly Hammer was afraid he would ask for too much money), and so it is the only Dracula sequel which does not feature Dracula. In The Brides of Dracula Van Helsing faces Baron Meinster, a vampire created by Dracula himself. Nineteen sixty also saw the release of Hammer's own take on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.

As mentioned above, Hammer's success would lead to a revival of Gothic horror movies. American International Pictures was the first to follow in Hammer's footsteps, with the release of their first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The House of Usher in 1960. Eventually AIP would not only adapt Poe's stories, but "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (under the name of The Haunted Palace)" by H. P. Lovecraft as well. Perhaps best known as a competitor of Hammer is Amicus Productions. Amicus began film production with such teen oriented musicals as It's Trad, Dad, but by 1964 had gone into production of horror movies with Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Although often confused with Hammer's films, Amicus' horror movies were generally set in the present and had a portmanteau format, featuring multiple, interconnected stories in one film. They would go onto to produce such films Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror (which, along with the aforementioned film, were adaptations of EC Comics), and Asylum. Another studio to follow in Hammer's footsteps was Tigon British Film Productions. Founded in 1966, they released their first horror movie (The Sorcerers) the following year. Today they are perhaps best known for the films Witchfinder General and The Creeping Flesh.

Despite competition from other studios, Hammer Films would dominate the field of Gothic horror throughout the Sixties. Unfortunately, that decade would also see the studio's decline as horror films moved away from Gothic horror to other subgenres.

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