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.   

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