Having been treated recently by the old aunty Beeb, with the superb BBC 4 series ‘A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss’ it has provoked my love for old horror. Among other things this it has inspired me to look back over my old horror film collection (but to be honest library would be a more apt description), those films from a bygone but not forgotten era of classical horror. Within the last few months there seems to be a sort of Hammer resurgence happening at the moment, with the recent art publication ‘The Art of Hammer’ listing all the classic film posters from yesteryear. Along with the recently in production ‘Woman in Black’, Hammers first Victorian period piece for quite some time.
So with this in mind I thought I would skim over a few of my more preferred choices of Hammer horrors collective. The ones that I still entertain as being some of the best horrors ever made, some would disagree. But if after 70 years these films still have the power to cause shock and awe within me then surely they are worth a quick gander. Since Hammer films has had a sudden resurgence for a new generation (gone are the days of the camp horror it seems) with the dark brooding remake of ‘Let the right one in’. This only fans my own flames of geeky love that I have for the first ‘violent’ horrors I watched as a young teen. So ladies and Gentlemen without further ado (and do not say I didn’t warn you) I present what I believe to be my fondest Hammer Horrors as I avoid both first Dracula (still a classic) and Curse of Frankenstein (even better) for the more impactful films that I witnessed during my early teens. I remember when I first sat down with a school friend (who was completely enamoured with Hammer) as we huddled around the small television in my room. He produced two blood red coloured video cases, each of which contained the visage of Christopher Lee; one was Dracula the other was The Devil Rides Out. Since those days of spending hours in front of the TV after school, I to have grown passionate about Hammers back catalogue.
I shall start with ‘Curse of the Werewolf ‘ which still one of my absolute favourites, not only because the late great Oliver Reed turns out a werewolf performance to rival (and at times better) Lon Chaney Jr. But also because of the effectively slow burn leading up to his transformation (again a great narrative structure also pulled of later in John Landis’s American Werewolf in London) as it is all characterisation and beautiful set design. Roy Ashton’s make-up effect for the werewolf is still brilliantly subtle and effective, almost own more to the 1933 Werewolf of London look, then Chaney’s Wolf Man look. The story still grips me even now, the character of Leon (Reed) is forever destined to be doomed, and it is though his fate is sealed the moment he is born on a full moon. It is also not overly gory for a hammer, but fear not the blood red (almost paint) look of the blood is still there. One of the first Hammers I was shown and still what I believe to be the best.
The Reptile, John Gilling’s mythical shape shifting horror, shot back to back with 3 other hammer productions (one of which was Plague of the Zombies, more on that later), is an atmospheric and slightly campy, supernatural romp. But by having the central villain a reptilian / female hybrid it offers something different from what most Hammers were at the time. Jacqueline Pearce churns out a supremely seductive performance, while Ashton’s make-up effects (although now seeming a little primitive) still manage to capture a horrifying on screen creature. One which if seen in shadow, would give the most hardened tough guy, the heebie jeebies
Bernhard Robinson’s lovingly crafted ‘Cornish Village’ set was again re-used by Gilling for his next feature, the aforementioned ‘Plague of the Zombies’. This is a zombie horror with some interesting themes (before Romero, but not socially specific) on a small village under the oppressive tyranny, of a power mad socialite. What is great about the characterisations of the zombies is that they have the most chilling and blood curdling scream. One of the only times a zombie (barring Romero’s original Night zombies) have managed to effectively chill me to my very core. The atmospheric tone of the various shots, still continuing to provided both dread and fear in equal helpings. For instance the sequence (the first of many) which sticks in my mind would be where Jacqueline Pearce, while dead in a half buried coffin, slowly transforms into a rotting corpse. That sequence along with the period setting (for which Hammer where so good at achieving) and the various subjective camera angles, allow me to enjoy this time I view it. Looking back over the film it makes one wonder why there has not been more ‘period’ zombie films, shooting them in the modern day is quickly becoming stagnant, much like their zombies. It is also worth noting that not a single zombie eats another human throughout the whole film, I wonder if Romero would ever bring it back down to basics, now that I think about it.
One set of films I have always been keen on and which hold an almost morbid-like fascination, are films based around Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein novel. I adore the original book and try to re-read it at least once a year, the chilling but exciting prospect of creating life from death has always (deep down) both terrified and intrigue. So it would surprise no one that I do in fact own quite a few of the Frankenstein myth on film, which apart from the classic universal horrors (both of James Whales gothic tales) one of the favourite characterisations of Baron Frankenstein and his creation, would be Peter Cushing’s turn in Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
If the previous entries of the Baron played him as an anti-hero of sorts, this took an utter U-turn and showed the darkest side to Cushing’s characterisation. The Baron would happily blackmail, lie, cheat, rape and dismember all in the name of science (seems for some reason I am drawn to flawed scientists as characters) on top of which it is shot with panache by cinematographer Arthur Grant. The opening sequence where a masked Baron attacks a wealthy lord, decapitating him and quickly has to get rid of the evidence is both hard-hitting and effective. Going out of its way to show an alternate persona of the Baron from the very opening moments, as well as the change of style Fisher went with after the metaphysical questioning of the soul from ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’. In Freddie Jones we have one of the most sympathetic (and human) characterisations of one the Barons creations, that Hammer committed to celluloid. All of which is neatly topped off with a rousing climax set within a burning manor house, where the creation and the baron come face to face with mortality. Powerful performances by both Jones and Cushing help to make this one of the last great Hammer Horrors, with Cushing’s presence is utterly menacing as he dominates each of his scenes.
Dracula has risen from the grave, literally has the best and most subtle poster for a Hammer film, even if it is not totally historically faithful in the image (not sure pink plasters where around in the Victorian era). Yet it still shows everything that Stoker conveyed about his vampires being sensual and mysterious beasts. It is also a more romanticized incarnation of Dracula as Lee prowls among the rooftops, while most of the scenes with Dracula add a wonderful burnt orange and red hue to its outer frames. Which when counted along with the rooftop sequences; provide a more dreamlike aesthetic to the piece. It also has a one of the best Dracula dispatches throughout the Hammers oeuvre, after falling off a cliff, the prince of darkness is impaled on a giant metal cross. Who says symbolic imagery does not have to be heavy-handed.
Finally there is Quatermass and the Pit, the rarest of beasts which perfectly melds two genres (horror and Sci-fi respectfully) on its limited budget. While still managing to amaze and terrify me with its London underground setting and haunting climax. Barbara Shelly and (one of my favourite Hammer actors) Andrew Keir turn out powerfully emotive performances, as they slowly uncover what lies buried in the underground. Nigel Kneale adapts his own story which terrifyingly questions our own evolution. The late great Roy Ward Baker orchestrates some truly memorable sequences such as, the underground telekinetic attack, the Martian possession of the local Londoners and the final climactic (and explosive) showdown with a melancholic twist. Intelligent and gripping sci-fi this is still very much sterling stuff.
So it seems that yes, after 50 odd years the Hammer back catalogue has dated some what, with its overly melodramatic performances and identical use of sets. But they are still darkly comic in places, juxtaposing pure horror with little touches of camp. Forever classics of British genre cinema, a tradition long since forgotten within the film industry, but one I hope to see a change in soon.