Film

Hammer Films’ Twilight Years Find the Horror Studio Raging Against the Trends of the Day

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In the late Fifties, Britain’s Hammer Film Productions, buoyed by the success of their movie featuring the BBC Television–created scientist hero Professor Bernard Quatermass, set their sights on adapting another cultural property: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The company was in the market for something new and edgy, and thought a Frankenstein adaptation would be a sure bet. But the initial scripting process left them dissatisfied: Milton Subotsky’s draft was too close to the original Universal productions of the character; Hammer, too, worried over a potential copyright-infringement lawsuit. In stepped writer Jimmy Sangster, who had never seen the Universal versions and adapted the text as he saw fit. The movie that followed was the first to really show the death and decay and gore inherent in Shelley’s story — in color. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) burst open the dams of the horror genre, leaving it stained with blood forever. The years that followed proved to be one of the most forward-thinking periods for horror in the history of the cinema, a spooky golden age Hammer reigned atop for nearly a decade before the trumpets sounded. At its peak, Hammer produced box-office royalty and enjoyed a station at the forefront of a literary, oftentimes Victorian horror wave that saw copy-cat releases like Roger Corman’s brilliant Edgar Allan Poe films starring Vincent Price and the creations of the minor-league Hammer rip-off studio Amicus Productions. Where Hammer went, horror followed. This trend persisted until the late Sixties, when another profound shift awaited the genre.

Earlier this summer, the Quad Cinema hosted the first part of a chronological walk-through of Hammer’s finest moments, showcasing their tremendous work from the late Fifties up through 1967. Those storied years erected a third significant wave in the evolution of horror filmmaking, after Universal’s monster pictures of the Thirties and Val Lewton’s classic war-time chillers of the Forties. Beginning last week, and running through August 3, the Quad is following up that series with a sequel counterpart charting the studio’s final years. While this program is notably weaker than the first, it is still packed to the brim with quality works from the likes of iconic Hammer directors such as Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, and Roy Ward Baker. It also benefits from the inclusion of the lesbian-themed Karnstein trilogy — The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Twins of Evil (1971) — which proved to be one of Hammer’s biggest hits, even in its dying days.

It wasn’t a rival horror film that would initially threaten Hammer’s seat at the throne, but rather a higher-brow picture about two American icons. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the Warren Beatty–Faye Dunaway classic that bore their name, had all the blood and guts any viewer could ask for, but this time, you didn’t have to summon the devil to get there: You just had to rob a bank. This development left Hammer in a tailspin. Additionally, Hollywood itself began to dabble in making horror, with the acclaimed likes of Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Under these circumstances, it proved difficult for Hammer to compete with the full arsenal of America’s prestige-filmmaking resources. Even on the fringes, Hammer was on the verge of being lapped by the revolutionary work of George A. Romero, whose landmark 1968 Night of the Living Dead shocked the world with its gruesome carnage and the social and political heft behind its themes of racial inequality and the disposability of black bodies (especially relevant at the time and sadly still so today). Suddenly, a Frankenstein with gaudy make-up didn’t seem so scary.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Hammer on the big screen, as their artists still had a lot of fight in them. The Devil Rides Out (1968) is one of their finest films, with a concerted focus on the occultist leanings that would soon overtake the horror genre after the mania surrounding the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). The Devil Rides Out was, in fact, perhaps too ahead-of-the-curve, but remains ripe for rediscovery due to its overwhelming sense of control over its cryptic, unnerving tone and its decadent flirtations with Satanism, which make recent critical darlings like The Witch and Hereditary look positively tame by comparison.

The Devil Rides Out screened during part one of the Quad series, but perhaps the greatest Hammer film features in part two: Freddie Francis’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968). Grave is the fourth entry in Hammer’s Dracula rotation but doesn’t possess a whiff of being a retread, given its innovative formal choices and series-best direction. Francis was always obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what a Hammer film could look like within the confines of the studio’s house style, a mission he pursued vigorously starting with his first assignment with the company, Nightmare (1964). In that one, Francis capitalizes on his narrative circumstances — the story follows the mental and emotional reverberations of a girl suffering from PTSD after witnessing a murder when she was a child — to key in on unconventional methods: nightmarish surrealism, extended dream sequences.

Grave takes a similarly daring approach; it’s a film stripped of plot, with only the barest resemblance of a complicated story. It’s a narrative conveyed through hushed means: the creeping dread of shadows, the foreshadowing of amber-tinted stained glass. Francis and DP Arthur Grant use colored filters to tint the screen in crimson, amber, and yellow whenever Dracula or his castle appear onscreen. The results cast a demon in stained glass, which would be blasphemous if it weren’t so damn cool. It also has the effect of tipping off viewers to when something gruesome or horrific is about to happen. The screen glows orange and audiences sit and wait for whatever terror is about to be unleashed — a prolonged jump-scare you can’t escape. Francis also smartly shoves the character back into the darkness: Grave exhibits the closest distillation of the character’s elemental kinship with shadow since F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). What’s truly stunning about the tinting is that, even as there’s nary a frame without a drop of deep crimson — through the set design, the costuming, or the sopping blood of the vampire lord’s victims — the centers of the images are often pitch-black, making it all the more sensational when Christopher Lee’s pale face peeks through, his burning eyes piercing the screen in extreme close-up. Francis understood that this wasn’t just a story of isolated upper-class terror, but of a being that lurks in the shadows, waiting patiently to find the right vein — and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to stop the foul beast.

Francis, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker have never gotten their due in the way many horror filmmakers have from the same period. What they were attempting wasn’t far removed from the genre reinterpretations and complex mythmaking of old-Hollywood lions like John Ford and Howard Hawks — they just did it in the context of horror stories, not the West. Alongside the great Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the second Hammer retrospective features a handful of other classics, including the Karnstein trilogy, which reimagined the story of the lesbian vampire Carmilla for the screen for the first time since Warner Bros.’ 1936 stab, Dracula’s Daughter. The Karnstein trilogy was a two-birds-with-one-stone situation for Hammer, because it allowed them to reinvent their most popular narrative trope (vampires) and to do so by tapping into the raw quality of a sexually explicit character who would push buttons and cause enough controversy to garner a box-office smash. They weren’t wrong; Bolstered by added hints of a lesbian plot device, Hammer suddenly seemed rebellious and exciting for the first time in the Seventies. Hiring Baker to helm the first entry, The Vampire Lovers, wasn’t a bad decision, either: He fostered a pictorial elegance and a feel for eroticism that left most of his colleagues completely in the dust. In addition to the Karnstein trilogy, which worked as a gamble and cemented Baker’s status as one of Hammer’s more exciting filmmakers, the studio also around this time released The Hands of the Ripper (1971), which pre-dated the next wave of horror: the slasher picture.

Hammer wouldn’t survive the Seventies, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. They were constantly trying to reinvent themselves with riffs on Satanism, vampirism, and, later, even kung fu, during a team-up with the Shaw Brothers. They unfortunately gave up the ghost not too long after the release of their mild-curio Exorcist rip-off To the Devil … a Daughter (1976), which was ultimately an admittance of defeat, letting go of what made the studio dynamic and interesting in the first place to chase the widespread appeal of William Friedkin’s blockbuster. Despite everything, Hammer Film Productions just wouldn’t stay dead and, in 2007, after decades of silence, announced their plans to produce more films. And return they did, most notably with Let Me In (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012). There’s only one logical conclusion to extract: You never can keep a good monster down.

‘Hammer’s House of Horror, Part II: The Decadent Years (1968-1976)’
Quad Cinema
Through August 3

 

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