The Savage Passions of Hammer Horror

How a small British film studio changed fear forever


“The public is more hard-boiled since the Frankenstein pictures of the Thirties. So many horrible things have happened since then that a film has to be really tough to get the desired reaction.” So said The Curse of Frankenstein screenwriter Jimmy Sangster in 1956, as Hammer Films went into production on the movie that would change the company and the horror genre forever.

It’s a revealing statement. How exactly do you make horror horrific again when your audience has lived through World War II and knows that the planet can now be destroyed in all sorts of previously unthinkable ways? The Hammer films, which are being showcased in a massive new 32-title retrospective at the Quad Cinema, found part of the answer in physicality — in their lustful embrace of strangling, stabbing, biting, choking, and burning, and in the bracing spectacle of bright-red blood. They reconnected violence to the corporeal, at a time when humanity’s capacity for destruction seemed more unreal than ever. In so doing, Hammer offered something of a visceral rebuke to the technology-driven fears of the time.

Ironic, perhaps — but also somewhat opportunistic. By the mid-Fifties, classic horror was in a period of decline. Universal’s monster movies of the Thirties were a thing of the past; newer entries in the genre focused on science-fiction concerns and nuclear anxieties, with occasional interest in schlocky gimmicks like 3-D. It was Hammer’s success with their 1955 theatrical version of The Quatermass Xperiment, a tense sci-fi thriller with Lovecraftian elements, that inspired them to have a go at a proper horror film.

The Curse of Frankenstein‘s success in 1957 would prompt the studio, which had been active in one form or another since the Thirties, to start focusing more on that genre. Hammer still made plenty of films in other genres as well, and some of them are screening in the Quad’s series. But the company would soon become synonymous with a very particular style of horror. Meanwhile, Frankenstein‘s stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (the former already a familiar face from television, the latter a relative unknown), would become the studio’s most recognizable actors, each appearing in more than twenty titles, often together.

The Curse of Frankenstein focused on Dr. Frankenstein’s obsessive ambitions to re-animate the dead and to create a new man; the emotions on display were big and broad, and for all the liberties the film had taken with the tale, it had remained true to the Gothic spirit of Mary Shelley’s original novel. Hammer tried something similar with Dracula (1958) — sometimes called The Horror of Dracula — which proved to be another massive hit. With Lee as the vampire, Dracula reclaimed the romantic quality of Bram Stoker’s original. His Dracula was dashing, regal, even sexy. He was a monster, to be sure, but there was something uncanny about him, a sense of the familiar gone wrong. Maybe it’s just the actor’s charisma, or his intensity. When his Dracula — or, later, his Rasputin, in Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966) — hypnotizes a victim, his pull feels not like some outward, other force, but an almost inner compulsion.

Lee was the rare performer who could convincingly go from brooding silence to shrieking rage in an instant — aristocratic one minute, animalistic the next. And he could move. Whereas in previous iterations the Count had been a figure of ominous stillness, Lee’s vampire bounded up stairs and leaped off tables and lunged and darted around rooms. For all his imposing height, the actor was unusually graceful. In Dracula, director Terence Fisher also deleted the character’s footsteps from the soundtrack; his intent was to make him seem more supernatural and unreal, but what he really did was to make him seem even faster.

The Hammer pictures may have been atmospheric fantasies, set in the past and involving classic monsters and myths, but there was also something resolutely modern about their spirit. They captured a passion and a savagery in the air, a sensuousness that came with the emerging hedonism of their times. (That hedonism was itself a response, perhaps, to the alienation and destructive potential of the period.) Hammer horror reflected its era — and, as the Sixties wore on, it helped shape that era as well. Its pioneering attitude toward sex and violence was expanded by other movies — by even gorier independent horror films, blood-soaked Westerns and action flicks, and the expanding exploitation genre. Even soft-core porn probably owes Hammer a nod of thanks.

Watching these films today — not just the canonical Dracula and Frankenstein titles, but all of them — one is seized with a sense of possibility and abandon. Like that vampire, the movies are brisk and fleet of foot; they rarely clock in at more than 95 minutes. The stories move, and the characters are developed in bright, bold strokes. Those famous Hammer sets — basic but colorful, cheap but evocative — may look fake, but they manage to convince because all those vampires and mummies and scientists and maidens and deranged noblemen leap and sprint through them with utter conviction.

Paradoxically, for all the full-bloodedness of the movies, the tales themselves are often slow-burn thrillers. Shot for a dime, they eschew jump scares or big set-pieces. We spend most of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) wondering just what exactly the curse is, or where the Mummy himself is; the film at times feels like a drawing-room mystery, where everyone’s loyalties are to be questioned. For all his explosive charisma, Lee’s Dracula only appears for a total of seven minutes in Dracula, the movie that made him a star.

Similarly, the characters’ seemingly simple impulses are often complicated by circumstance. In The Phantom of the Opera (1962), the disfigured, demented composer lurking in the shadows is a figure of pathos rather than terror. This was the reason cited for why the film was a financial disappointment at the time, but today, the fact that it errs on the side of romantic tragedy feels like a strength. (The role of the Phantom had been originally written for Cary Grant, which may explain why he seems so sympathetic.) Meanwhile, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) is a somber look at the sordid, tragic circumstances that led to the title character’s existence: He may go around ripping people’s throats out, but his story is steeped in misfortune and melancholy. We barely see the monster in question. We mostly see the man himself, played by then-newcomer Oliver Reed, a physical actor if there ever was one, tormented by his uncontrollable impulses.

In 1964’s The Gorgon — for my money, the best horror film Hammer made — there are no real good guys and bad guys. Peter Cushing plays a brain scientist who appears to be covering up a series of murders involving an ancient Greek creature capable of turning anyone who looks at her into stone, but the film refuses to condemn him. As the story proceeds we slowly become aware that his nurse, and the film’s main love interest, played by Barbara Shelley, is the Gorgon in question. We don’t see it, she doesn’t know it, and nobody comes out and says it — and yet the information is suggested to us, almost as if in a dream. What started out as a horror flick turns out to be a subtle psychological tragedy. And it perhaps highlights one of the ironies of Hammer’s legacy: That a studio whose success was founded on earthy passion and sordid gore could make films of such somber, artful loveliness.

‘Hammer’s House of Horror, Part 1: The Classic Years’
Quad Cinema
Through June 17


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