Friday, May 3, 2013

"Hammer Time!"

Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man, were all defined cinematically by the actors of the 1930s; Karloff, Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. But that was all to change when a new legion of filmmakers and actors from across the pond put a new perspective on the “gothic horror”.
In 1934 a successful businessman and failed comedian, Anthony Hinds aka “Will Hammer” formed Hammer Productions Limited and began production of the first Hammer film, The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, a modest 61 minute comedy. In the summer of 1935, Hammer’s first full-length film featured Bela Lugosi, the star of Universal’s Dracula, in The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. The first ‘official’ picture from Hammer Film Productions was Doctor Morelle, released by Exclusive on June 27, 1949. By the mid-fifties, most Hammer films were produced by either Anthony Hinds or Michael Carreras, son of Hammer films producer & film renter Sir James Carreras.
The next major progression for the company was a color horror film titled The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee in the role of the Monster. The British press found the film to be distasteful, responding with such quotes as “for Sadists Only” and “among the half-dozen most repulsive films I encountered”. The picture was a financial success worldwide and redefined the horror genre and breathed life into the phenomena of “Hammer horror.” Hammer would continue to produce six sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein between 1959 and 1974.
            Having brokered a deal between Hyman’s Seven Arts production company and Universal-International, Hammer would make their own version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Hammer would grant distribution rights to Universal in exchange for permission to make the film. Christopher Lee took the lead role, no one else was auditioned. Upon release in the US, to differentiate Hammer’s version form the original, Universal chose the new title Horror of Dracula. The critics were once again repulsed by Hammer’s latest production: “I came away revolted and outraged” wrote the Daily Worker. Time has been kind to Hammer’s Dracula. When the film was briefly re-released in 1996, the Evening Standard’s Neil Norman described it as “romantic cinema that transcends genre. Unimpeachable and unsurpassed.” Hammer also produced eight other Dracula films between 1960 and 1974. The first five were direct sequels to the original and starred Peter Cushing as the Count’s nemesis Doctor Van Helsing.
In 1974 Christopher Lee had decided to don the cape for the last time. Despite Lee’s efforts to preserve Dracula’s integrity by paraphrasing from Stoker’s novel in each film, he could no longer work with the poorly written scripts. That year Lee firmly stated: “I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and no longer intend to do it. It is now part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”
 Hammer continued its largely successful horror pictures with a remake of The Mummy’s Hand. Ounce again it starred Peter Cushing (as John Banning) and Christopher Lee (as the Mummy, Kharis). Hammer’s The Mummy broke box-office records set by Hammer’s Dracula the previous year. By the mid-1960s, a total of four “Mummy” films were released, unrelated to the remake. The last of the Mummy movies titled The Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) was a modern day version of Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.
Hammer also produced a series of “cave girl” films, most notably One Billion Years B.C. starring Raquel Welch. While the Gothic horror films were scaring up big money at the box-office, Hammer also produced a series of low-budget psychological thrillers such as; Paranoiac, Nightmare, and Fear in the Night. Hammer even dabbled into the ‘film noir’ genre, featuring American actors. Other notable films by Hammer include; The Curse of Werewolf (1961) Oliver Reed’s first starring role, The Gorgon (1964), The Phantom of the Opera (1962) starring Herbert Lom, Quatermass and the Pit (1967); US title “Five Million Miles to Earth”, and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”.
By the early 1970s, Hammer had to change with the times. Audiences were able to see more explicit gore, in relatively mainstream American films. Hammer had to compete and thus the “Karnstein trilogy” was created; The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust of a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971). These films had the traditional Hammer production design and direction, but also an increase in scenes of nudity that were not of the norm for English films at the time. The Karnstein Trilogy were written by Tudor Gates, who also wrote two Hammer films that were unsuccessful but over time would become cult favorites; Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter(1974).
In the late 1970s, Hammer made fewer films and became a victim of its own notoriety. The Gothic horror films that put Hammer Films on the map were growing less popular and thus Hammer attempted to change by combining gothic horror with the martial arts genre creating The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), unfortunately with little success. Hammer’s last production, in 1979, was a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The film was a failure at the box-office and nearly bankrupt the studio.
The 2000s marked Hammer’s revival with films; Beyond the Grave (2008), Let Me In (2010) the remake of the Swedish film “Let the Right One In”, The Resident (2011) marking Christopher Lee’s return to a Hammer production, Wake Wood (2011), and The Woman in Black (2012) starring Daniel Radcliffe. Hammer’s return to cinemas also included the return of all things Hammer to store shelves! You can find many Hammer collectibles at our shop Horrorbles, both vintage and new! From hand-crafted figurines, to drive-in posters, you’ll find that special gift for the Hammer aficionado in your family.
“Maniac” Matt