An Exploration of Hammer Horror

In October 2020, I wrote an extensive treatise on Universal horror, the Universal Monsterverse, something I believe to be the very first cinematic universe (intentional or not). Universal reached the end of a rollicking ride through Gothic horror and science gone wrong in 1956 with the third Creature from the Black Lagoon film. This ride, which began in 1925 with the Phantom of the Opera, took us from Paris to London and deep in the Carpathian Mountains and sands of Egypt all to way to the Amazon jungle. Vampires, werewolves, monsters, hunchbacks, mummies, mad scientists, and prehistoric creatures terrorized moviegoers for more than 30 years.

The horror genre found itself in a precarious place in the 1950s. Science fiction and giant bug movies were all the rage, while Gothic horror took a backseat or became a bit of a joke to be parodied, despite Roger Corman’s best efforts. Although productions like The Fly and Eyes Without a Face gave us that claustrophobic monster next door War of the Worlds and Them! couldn’t, it took little-known Hammer Films out of England to change everything.

Hammer introduced us to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. What followed was a more than 20-year run of Gothic horror and science fiction that culminated with the Hammer House of Horror anthology TV series in 1980.

As Universal unwittingly created a somewhat interconnected cinematic universe with their mash-up “House of …” films, Hammer did not do this. The only through-line was Cushing’s portrayal of vampire hunter Van Helsing (and his descendants), and Lee’s on-again-off-again reprisals of Count Dracula. As with Universal decades earlier, Hammer utilized a stable of venerable actors, directors, and screenwriters to produce these popular films at a rapid pace on a shoestring budget. And like Universal, there were franchises with numerous sequels and the occasional one-off. However, unlike Universal whose most complete story arc belonged to Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, Hammer eschewed a werewolf franchise in favor of Cushing’s Van Helsing and the seemingly never-ending battle with the undead.

The Collinson twins in Twins of Evil

From 1934–1968, the Hays Code ruled Hollywood, which involved a “list of ‘don’ts’ and ‘be carefuls,’ with bans on nudity, suggestive dancing and lustful kissing.” While Hollywood struggled with this form of censorship, Universal flirted with sexuality in their horror films (mainly with lesbianism in Dracula’s Daughter in 1936), but as much death and evil were depicted, hardly any blood, if any, was ever shown.

Hammer, which got its start adapting radio dramas and serials, changed the game in the late 1950s. After 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in glorious technicolor in 1957. Blood and gore appeared on screen for the first time. Universal never shied away from the grotesque, but Hammer was the first to gush blood. Cushing’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein painted the tortured genius as more villain than visionary and that theme permeated the sequels. Another element Hammer brought forth was gratuitous sexuality. Something the studio fought the censors over for years. Valerie Gaunt and Hazel Court became the first Hammer Horror actresses to be sexualized in any way, and they wouldn’t be the last. The Curse of Frankenstein also gave us another venerable pairing, director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. Universal still owned the rights to Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein monster design, so original make-up had to be developed for Lee’s portrayal of the monster. Six sequels would follow: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

Christopher Lee as Dracula

In 1958, Lee cut his teeth on another titular Gothic monster that Universal had originally brought to life in 1931, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Lee had a big cape to fill as Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi had turned in a character- and genre-defining performance 27 years earlier. Lee was enamored with the character and tried to play him as close to the novel as possible. Jimmy Sangster wrote an original screenplay, which, like the 1931 film, was a tremendous departure from the novel. The Horror of Dracula was a smash and Lee fit the role to a “T.” Terence Fisher was quickly establishing himself as a top-notch horror film director.

The Horror of Dracula spawned eight sequels starting with Brides of Dracula in 1960, which oddly enough, didn’t feature Count Dracula. The rest of the canon includes Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).

In 1959, Hammer released The Mummy, which was a conglomeration of Universal’s mummy movie franchise, The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Ghost. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee again starred as Fisher directed a Sangster screenplay. Cushing and Lee would not appear in any of the three mummy movie sequels: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971).

Perhaps the biggest disappointment during Hammer’s reign of terror was the lack of a werewolf franchise. The Curse of the Werewolf starring Oliver Reed from 1961 is an absolute gem of a film and it’s a shame Hammer didn’t develop a story arc here as Universal did with Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The only other Universal film Hammer tackled was The Phantom of the Opera starring Herbert Lom of Pink Panther fame, which was released in 1962.

Hammer didn’t just set out to reinvent Universal’s stable of Gothic monsters, the studio also produced The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). Hammer went on to produce a slew of horror pictures throughout the 1960s and early 1970s including The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Gorgon (1964), The Witches (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), The Reptile (1966), Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Countess Dracula (1971), Hands of the Ripper (1971), and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).

The studio didn’t limit their vampire films to just Dracula. Hammer also gave us The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Twins of Evil (1971), Vampire Circus (1972), and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974).

Some of these films are personal favorites and grace the Countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Movies. I must admit I haven’t seen all of them, but I would say my view rate is somewhere around 80%.

Although Hammer resisted the urge to cross storylines or produce mash-up type films a la Universal, their Dracula and Frankenstein films launched immersive worlds populated with rich and colorful set pieces and introduced us to actors whose performances would stay with us for decades to come. Hammer didn’t shy away from blood, gore, nudity, and sexuality – elements that would further define the horror genre to this day.

Hammer’s bevy of beauties has become something of legend as well. In 2009, Hammer Glamour: Classic Images From the Archive of Hammer Films, featuring and celebrating Hammer’s female stars, was published. The book contains some spectacular color photography of the likes of Ingrid Pitt, Martine Beswick, Caroline Munro, Barbara Shelley, Joanna Lumley, Nastassja Kinski, and Raquel Welch. Hammer also introduced us to Linda Hayden, Martita Hunt, Veronica Carlson, Stephanie Beacham, and the Collinson twins.

I have often remarked that horror reflects what we as a society are afraid of at any given time in history and by the 1950s the atomic age and space aliens had us running for the hills. Giant bugs and flying saucers were causing all kinds of cinematic havoc on an epic scale. Hammer studios returned us to claustrophobic Gothic horror and mad scientists from a bygone age with a new flair that has resonated throughout the genre ever since while reintroducing us to beloved characters and creating icons who went on to wide-ranging award-winning careers.   

Going Visiting

Throwing it back to 2014 when the homie Jean-Paul came to visit me in California.

On any given Saturday or Sunday when I was a young boy who counted his age in single digits and fractions, my father would pile me and my mother in the car and take us to visit a relative I had no idea how we were related to. “We’re going to go see [insert Aunt and Uncle here].” A phone call may or may not have preceded one of these jaunts over hill and dale to some nondescript house on the outskirts of Rochester in western New York in the 1970s. All I know is that anyone even close to my age usually made themselves scarce during these visits leaving me resigned to an afternoon of boredom rivaled only by Sunday evenings tormented by Lawrence Welk and the cast of 60 Minutes at my Aunt Carole’s house.

I’m not talking about those regular visits to my dad’s aforementioned sister’s house in Scottsville or to my grandmother’s brother Bob’s house in Henrietta. I had seven cousins in reasonable proximity to my age to play with during those house calls. And I am not talking about visits to see children, parents, or grandparents living out of state. No, I am talking about the random excursions to see people my parents barely knew.

The family tree had no meaning for me then. I’ve become the keeper of it now even though I was adopted and have since discovered some of my biological relatives. My father was bloody awful when it came to explaining how you were related to anyone, and if he did explain it, I have long forgotten those genealogy lessons. My mom was Korean, so there was no tree to explore there at the time, at least not one that had any names. I know now how I was related to the people we schlepped to see even though the memories all blur together in a malaise of uncomfortable furniture, unfriendly dogs, and candy dishes filled to the brim with dusty “mints” that chewed like antacids and tasted like stale toothpaste they don’t make anymore.

If you spend any time on social media, Facebook, in particular, you’ll see that there is a movement afoot among younger generations to disavow toxic relatives, eschew societal and familial norms, and create their own versions of what they define as “family.” Gone are the days of accepting people just because you’re related to them and chalking up their bad or toxic behavior to idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and waving them away. Younger people are more independent and left to their own devices and proclivities these days whereas my generation didn’t have a choice.

Made it a point to visit my cousin Judith who was living just outside of London at the time during a trip to England in 2014.

[This blog has some great statistics on the practice of visiting relatives: https://www.areavibes.com/library/visiting-family/]

As the decades have passed, fewer people attend church on Sunday, kids are busier than ever with sports and other extracurricular activities. We thought we were go-go-go in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’s kids don’t have time to sit down for five minutes and then it’s off to soccer, baseball, martial arts, and God knows what else (if they’re not strapped to a gaming chair for hours on end). My generation, Gen X, is the “whatever” generation. Hell, half the time when some news organization makes a graphic or a meme surfaces discussing the major living generations, Gen X is left off, and we’re okay with that. But we’re also the generation that got dragged to see these random relations and the generation of we’re not gonna do what our parents used to make us do.

All of these things got me thinking. Does anyone go “visiting” anymore? And again, I am not talking about your annual Turkey Bowl with the usual suspects on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve at grandma and grandpa’s, I’m talking about the impromptu trips to the far-flung twigs of the family tree. Before I could go off half-cocked on this topic like I did when I erroneously reported the premature death of the American picnic, I thought I would do some actual research. I had a long Facebook messenger talk with my cousin Brenna who is in her early 20s, and I threw the question out to a Gen X group I belong to on Facebook. The answers I got back surprised me. They were all over the place, as individual as the people who answered my query.

Some people had become the ones who received visitors, some still went visiting as they did as children, for others the practice died when certain relatives did, some said their loved ones lived too far away or that they had moved too far away, some became antisocial hermits in their old age, while still others held fast to seeing the same folks every year for the holidays. Some are just too busy. As for Brenna … she is split down the middle between two schools of thought.

“I have such strong family values and going to see family still is really important to me. I always loved when family came over or when we went to go see family growing up, so when I got older and was able to drive myself places I was SO excited to go see my grandparents and meet my cousins and aunts/uncles for lunch/dinner/coffee and such. They would ALWAYS make a comment about how I’m the only grandchild that visits,” Brenna said. “I’m very much at a point where I don’t go to family functions that I don’t want to. If a specific person is too toxic or something and I know I won’t enjoy the event I’ll just skip it.”

Before leaving California we visited family friend Rita on a regular basis.

I had really thought the practice was dead. I guess I was wrong. Maybe because I left home at 18 and haven’t really spent much time in my hometown since, maybe because as a kid I hated those car trips and boring, lazy weekend afternoons playing with my own toys on some musty old throw rug while listening to my parents swap stories with relatives they hadn’t seen since the last funeral, maybe because I thought I couldn’t be the only member of my generation who felt this way, it had to be an extinct facet of family life.

I had another thought while I was contemplating all of this. What about those of us who left and really never went back, not in any meaningful way anyway? I think it’s a longer discussion, but what I will say is if you ever do leave home, don’t expect anyone other than your immediate family, and a few very close friends, to ever come to visit. You find out very quickly how much you actually mean to people when you relocate a significant distance from your hometown. It’s a strange phenomenon. You are always expected to go home. But when you invite people from home to come to visit, the dog seems to have eaten their homework. I was fortunate to travel for work for the better part of 20 years and I had the opportunity to meet up with cousins and friends in cities across the country. And as an only child, and as I get older, my very tight circle of friends is more family now. But, when I had the chance to go to London in 2014, I made it point to visit my cousin Judith.

Thomas Wolfe famously titled a novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, and there seems to be more than a modicum of truth to that, I have found that so much has changed in my hometown that it’s nothing like I remember in some regards, yet some things have remained eerily the same.

And that seems to be the case in many regards with my brief exploration into this topic. The more things change, the more they stay the same, meaning I’m sure there were just as many people 40 years ago who went visiting, those who didn’t, those who were made to, and those who weren’t. I just think fewer kids are dragged off to places they don’t want to go to see people they don’t know, and that’s okay by me.