On the 11th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me An Animated Classic

Unfortunately, the Charlie Brown specials have been acquired by Apple and now stream on the Apple+ service exclusively. Conversely, Apple has decided to at least allow folks to watch the Thanksgiving and Christmas specials for free for a limited time. We have Hulu+Live TV and sometimes the rights holders for certain shows or movies have only granted broadcast rights and don’t allow streaming. That was the case with A Charlie Brown Christmas last year and I was so incensed I bought a copy of the thing on DVD.

I have such fond memories of Christmas past. I spent a good part of my early childhood poor, although my parents did a wonderful job of hiding this from me. I always had good birthdays, plentiful Thanksgivings and Easters, and best of all, wonderful Christmases. Now that I am older and understand how little we could afford, I am ashamed of myself for being the selfish snot that I was as a little boy.

One of the things I do so enjoy about this time of year is the Christmas specials and movies. I’m really not a fan of newer Christmas movies and songs. Maybe I just don’t give them a chance.

I get very nostalgic this time of year and that fact will be reflected in this countdown.

11. A Charlie Brown Christmas – 1965

This is usually the first Christmas special I watch each year, this year being an exception, and I plan to watch it multiple times from my DVD copy before December 25. I’m not one for the Halloween special and although I have developed a new appreciation for the Thanksgiving special, the Christmas special is my favorite. From the skating scene to Linus’ monologue and Charlie Brown’s tree purchase – there is so much to like.

I remember trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue as a kid, snowball fights, sliding around in the snow and on the ice, and playing football with my friends. So many of the activities Charlie Brown and his friends engage in remind me of my own childhood.

The one thing that stands out to me about this show is the music. Vince Guaraldi’s score has become iconic and the songs have become Christmas classics on the radio, SiriusXM, and online streaming services. Director Bill Melendez truly captures the spirit of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip characters in this production. It has a sweetness, innocence, and charm that, for me, is the perfect way to kick off the season.

It’s not particularly well-animated and the editing is a bit choppy here and there. But it’s sweet, innocent, and not heavy-handed and I enjoy it.

On the 12th Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me A Twilight Zone Episode

12 Days of Knaak Christmas

For some reason, the older I get the more difficult I find it to get into the Christmas spirit. I’m not sure why. I have always felt that I kept Christmas well, unlike that curmudgeon Scrooge, at least until one fateful Christmas Eve. Perhaps Christmas is for the kiddies. Maybe it’s the Christmas creep as we see ads and commercials earlier and earlier each year. Maybe it’s the incessant drone of Christmas music for six weeks, or the airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in November.

I tend to try to prompt myself and nudge myself into the Yuletide spirit by listening to the music of the season, without driving myself mad, and by watching certain movies and specials along the way. I watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (don’t get ahead of me), last night, and I have to admit, it helped.

So, I thought I would bring back the 12 Days of Knaak Christmas countdown and highlight my favorite Christmas movies, specials, and special episodes.

12. The Twilight Zone: Night of the Meek

I am very fickle when it comes to Christmas specials and movies and this episode of The Twilight Zone danced into my head like a dream of sugarplums. It aired on December 23, 1960, and starred Art Carney of The Honeymooners fame. An alcoholic who gets sacked as a department store Santa Claus, Carney’s Henry Corwin finds a mysterious bag. Rather than spend Christmas in the bag, Corwin spends the holiday using the enchanted sack to actually be Santa Claus and make some dreams come true.

Directed by Jack Smight and written by series creator Rod Serling, Night of the Meek is a tale of redemption, however fleeting, featuring a nuanced performance by Carney. The episode shows that it is truly magical to give and that doing so might be able to save one’s soul in the process.

I’ve always been a fan of The Twilight Zone, and considering my affinity for the dark and the macabre, this episode of the iconic horror/science fiction series is the perfect way to bridge the spooky things of October with the joys of Christmastime. I’m not big on TV series’ “very special episodes” so this will be the only installment of a Christmas-themed regular television serial. If you’ve never seen this episode, I encourage you to do so. Unlike many Christmas specials and movies that miss the mark, this one really hits home.

I hope you join me tomorrow for the next installment in the countdown.

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Recently, I posted my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs as I made the argument for separating seasonal and Christmas songs. For numerous reasons, Baby It’s Cold Outside, which is not even a Christmas song, will not be on this list. We can discuss it all you like, but I just don’t think it’s appropriate anymore. As I mentioned in the previous entry, I am curious to know in what year these songs were written, recorded, and released. Many of them are just flat-out timeless.

I, again, enjoy the original definitive version of these songs, and I really don’t care for any “new” Christmas music. I make one exception. Since we went early with the seasonal songs this year, we’ll post this now so you have plenty of time to get in the Christmas spirit.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Brenda Lee recorded this song when she was all of 13 years old and it was released in 1958. I enjoy the rockabilly sound. One of the more popular Christmas tunes, it hit the Billboard charts more than once.

Silver Bells

When I was a kid, I loved the Bob Hope Christmas specials, mainly to see the Playboy (later Associated Press) college football all-star team. I eventually learned about Hope and his efforts to entertain the troops. I also learned to appreciate Hope’s humor and his legacy. On every Christmas special, Hope would perform a duet of Silver Bells. The song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and released in 1950.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It may as well be a Christmas anthem. Upbeat and festive, this song, made famous by numerous singers, heralds the arrival of the Christmas season. I couldn’t have this list without something from Mr. Christmas himself, Andy Williams. Williams made Christmas his own cottage industry in Branson, Missouri. He too was known for television Christmas specials.


This is my one exception when it comes to newer Christmas music. Colbie Caillat co-wrote this with Mikal Blue and Stacy Blue in 2007. I love this tune. I am a fan of Caillat’s music and this song has a story and a touch of melancholy to it that I really like.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Another Christmas anthem that rings in the season, this song was written in 1951 by Meredith Wilson. Numerous artists including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, and more recently, Michael Bublé, have recorded versions of this classic. I’ll leave you with Bublé’s version. His Christmas album from a few years ago is a real treat.

Santa Claus and His Old Lady

When I was a disc jockey with Armed Forces Radio, we would start the season with one Christmas song an hour and build up the frequency as December 25 approached. I discovered Cheech and Chong’s Santa Claus and His Old Lady, played it for the first time and fell out of my chair. More spoken word performance than a song, it’s hilarious.

Christmas in Hollis

Okay, I lied. There’s another newer, original song I like. I grew up on hip hop music and one of the first groups of which I became a fan was Run DMC. And yes, they did a Christmas song. It has an infectious hook and a great beat. It’s different and a sign of the times, 1987 to be exact, the year I graduated high school.

Little Drummer Boy

I am not a big fan of this song, but Bing Crosby and David Bowie combined for an unexpected version of the song on Crosby’s last Christmas special, and I just had to include it. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the tune in 1940 and it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951.

Carol of the Bells

The song that everyone sets their computerized outdoor light display to, and the only song of its kind that I like.  Written by Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky in 1914, I prefer Trans Siberian Orchestra’s version.

The Christmas Song

Written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (The Velvet Fog), this one has become an endearing Christmas classic. Covered by countless artists, this song evokes images of warm Christmas wishes. I prefer Nat King Cole’s version.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I spent 10 years in the United States Navy and I spent many a Christmas away from home. I also traveled quite a bit for the profession I spent 20 years in, and missed a few Christmases working. This song hits home for numerous reasons. Written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent in 1943, it was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year. I like Frank Sinatra’s version.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

I just had to have something from Burl Ives. Written by Johnny Marks in 1962 and included as part of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Ives recorded the definitive version. This is one of the more popular songs for current artists to cover.

White Christmas

I’ll end this list with what has become my favorite Christmas song. I don’t like musicals, and can’t stand them, but a few years ago I finally gave White Christmas a shot and I was hooked. The song, written by Irving Berlin, debuts in 1942’s Holiday Inn, but it became a staple when Bing Crosby’s hit musical of the same name took off in 1954. This is one of the most popular songs of all time. Here is Bing Crosby with Frank Sinatra.

My Favorite Seasonal Songs

Since everyone is so keen on starting Christmas so soon, and re-gifting is such a thing these days, I thought I would recycle a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. I will not succumb to Christmas Creep, but the temperature has dropped, the days are getting longer, and we’re on the backside of Halloween, so I guess we can start with SEASONAL songs.

Something struck me as odd a couple of years ago. I do love Christmas music and I prefer the traditional or definitive versions … and in many cases that means the original. I also started to wonder when some of these songs were written because of the myriad musical styles represented. I was listening to Holiday Traditions on SiriusXM in December 2019 and I realized that many songs we identify as “Christmas” songs are actually seasonal and have nothing to do with Christmas. That doesn’t mean I like them any less, they just deserve their own list.  So, I decided to split them up.

Here are my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs.

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith, has been recorded by countless artists over the years. It’s a fun, upbeat song that we all know and can sing by heart. I prefer Johnny Mathis performing this one.

My Favorite Things

I am not sure how this song, most famously performed by Tony Bennett, got to be associated with Christmas. Perhaps the visuals and references place it around Christmastime. It originated in 1961 with Julie Andrews on The Garry Moore Show’s Christmas special. Andrews also performed it in The Sound of Music, both on Broadway and in the film. Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, this has become a seasonal jazz favorite.

Happy Holiday

This is another song that is commonly associated with Christmas although it was written for a movie that encompasses all holidays. Written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby and Martha Mears in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and yes, the hotel chain was named after the film), this version references the holiday-themed hotel Crosby’s character opens.

Sleigh Ride

This is another song that I really don’t know why it became associated with Christmas. It is my favorite fall/winter seasonal song and Johnny Mathis’ version is the one I prefer. This great tune has been recorded by countless artists as well. Written by Leroy Anderson in 1948, Sleigh Ride is considered an orchestra standard and it was first recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1949. Mitchell Parish added the lyrics in 1950. I usually try to listen to this one first to kick off my holiday music listening season.

Jingle Bells

There’s a theme here. I have no earthly idea how this song became associated with Christmas either. It just might be the oldest seasonal song that surfaces during the holidays. Written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, zipping along in a one-horse open sleigh might have been the preferred method of transportation during the winter months when the song was composed, although it was supposed to be a Thanksgiving song. Numerous variations of the lyrics have been recorded over the years, including what would be considered politically incorrect (by today’s standards) references and accents regarding winter in Mexico most notably recorded by the Glenn Miller orchestra. Let’s go with Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Marshmallow World

This song was practically tossed on the scrap head of forgotten seasonal songs until SiriusXM resurrected it, and when it was recently used in a commercial. Perhaps the best version was recorded by Dean Martin. Written in 1949 by Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose, the song celebrates simply playing in the snow. 

Let it Snow

Written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945, this song doesn’t exactly celebrate snow, rather extols the virtues of staying in and getting cozy. Since this list is pretty male heavy, let’s go with the great Doris Day for this one.


Let Me Tell You About My Other Mom

My biological mother, Donna Mary Turner, circa 1969.

I have kept this close to the vest for quite a while for numerous reasons but I am finally comfortable with sharing at least part of the story.

In December 2018 I spit into a tube and mailed that tube off to 23 and Me hoping to discover my ethnicity. Part of me hoped to learn something of my biological family. I was adopted during the first week of my life and I was raised by John and Yung Hi Knaak, then of Erie, Pennsylvania. My parents John and Yung Hi never kept my adoption from me, on the contrary, they told me when I was four years old. Not that I really understood what it meant at the time, but I’m sure the information was intended to explain why a Caucasian boy’s mother was Korean.

As I grew up, I often wondered about my biological family, my mother in particular. However, every time I brought it up, my mom Yung Hi would get upset and question her parenting skills and my love for her. My dad John would try to placate her and assure her it was just the curiosity of a child and nothing more. He was right. And believe me, I got into plenty of scrapes defending her honor and nationality and my status as one of the adopted. I loved my parents; I couldn’t have been raised by better people. They passed away more than 15 years ago, and I still think about them every day.

Even as an adult, I felt weird about seeking out my biological family. I thought it would have been an insult to John and Yung Hi. I wasn’t what you’d call a model teenager, I put them through the wringer even into my early 20s. When they died in 2006 and 2007 respectively, I decided that maybe it was time to launch a search. You see these TV programs featuring emotional family reunions between long-lost relatives all the time. I started to investigate it.

Until 2017, Pennsylvania was Draconian with regard to adoption records. When I took up the idea in 2010-2011, I would have had to spend $150 and petition the court, and even then, they still could have said “no,” especially if the birth parents were still alive. We had just bought a house in 2008 and we were cash-strapped at the time and couldn’t afford the $150 to take a run at “maybe.” I was also still skittish about the whole thing, disrespecting my parents’ memory and all that.

Fast forward to December 2018 and a 23 and Me Christmas present from my wife that led me to a biological cousin on my father’s side. She said that Pennsylvania had changed the law and all I had to do was fill out a form and send in a check for $20 and I could get my original birth record. Well, a quick Google search confirmed my newfound cousin’s information. I am one of those old-school guys who keeps the emergency husband check in his wallet. I couldn’t fill out the form and write the check fast enough. Still, my birth record may not have existed. It was a shot in the dark and it could take up to 45 days to get any kind of response.

My biological mother Donna Mary Turner at approximately age 15.

Exactly 45 days later my original birth record arrived. The information printed on it was sparse, but it was enough. My mother’s name was Donna Mary Turner, she was 23 when I was born, my name was Baby Boy Turner, and my father’s name was left blank. The detective work began rather quickly. After a few dead ends and unreturned Facebook messages, I found someone who turned out to be my mother’s first cousin, my first cousin once removed, Melissa Turner. Melissa made a phone call to my mother’s widower and within hours told me that I had indeed found my biological family. And an Ancestry DNA test further confirmed what we already knew.

I spoke to my mother’s husband on the phone shortly thereafter and although I came away with some answers, I was still left with several questions. That call also led me to another with my grandmother who is still alive. I was a bit surprised to learn that more people than just my mother were aware of my existence. My great-grandmother was in the room when I was born. My mother’s widower knew about me. However, my mother took my father’s identity with her to her grave.

When it comes to the Knaaks, at this point in time I have well over 100 cousins, most of which fall into the second cousin category. I have taken over responsibility for the maintenance of the Knaak family tree and this has further kept the genealogy fire burning when it comes to learning about my biological family. The Knaaks are predominantly German, while I am not. I am English, Irish and Scottish.

I left my hometown of Rochester, New York, at age 18. I knew at an early age that my future lay elsewhere. At age 53 my wanderlust has been satiated for the most part, it’s more of a mental and emotional journey at this point. Yet, I have much more of my adopted state of Washington to explore. Interestingly enough, most of my Knaak relatives still reside in western New York, and most of my Turner relatives still call north central/western Pennsylvania home.

And that brings me to my point. I have been Facebook friends with my biological cousin, Melissa, for three years or so, and as luck would have it her son and daughter-in-law now live in Seattle. Just this past week, Melissa had the opportunity to visit, and she had a free day that she chose to spend with me. I gladly drove the 2 ½ hours to the Emerald City.

A meeting 53 years in the making, me and my biological cousin Melissa.

Melissa and I conversed over food and adult beverages for more than four hours. We discovered that we have much in common, including similar personalities and a shared sense of humor, and we are both fluent in sarcasm. We have traveled along similar career paths and we each live on an ocean, on opposite coasts mind you, but an ocean, nonetheless. I felt like I have known her forever, and we fell into easy conversation. It wasn’t forced and it didn’t feel like a first-time meeting, it just felt like the most recent visit among many.

My mother Donna, who had three brothers (Melissa’s father being one of them), married her husband 15 months or so after I was born. She attended Bryant and Stratton in Buffalo, New York, after graduating from Port Allegany High School in Port Allegany, Pennsylvania. She died of cancer in 2010 at age 64. Ironically, my mom who raised me also died at age 64. By all accounts, I take after my mother Donna quite a bit, except for the Elvis Presley fandom. Photos Melissa was kind enough to provide show where I got my curly blond locks as a toddler.  

Again, as many answers as I have, I still have more questions. Who was my father? Why did my mother eventually decide to give me up? I am zeroing in on who dad was. I am pretty sure his last name was Taylor and we have narrowed it down to two possibilities. That cousin on my father’s side who helped propel me down this path has stopped responding, perhaps her life has gotten in the way and she doesn’t have the bandwidth for me and my quest, or maybe she was told to shut up and stop asking questions. Regardless, we’ll have to get more aggressive and persistent if I am to answer this question.

Of what information does exist, there is so much more to learn. Genealogy is a shared passion and Melissa is quick to teach me the family history. On the other hand, I do not believe that I am going to make up 53 years of lost time with any of my biological relatives. I think it’s a fallacy and misguided to think that anyone who finds long-lost relatives could ever do that. However, you can have and enjoy whatever relationship you choose with those you do find.

Sitting across from my cousin Melissa it was readily apparent that we are indeed related, cut from the same cloth as it were. Yes, we already knew about the shared DNA and family tree connection, but the more we talked and spent time together, I came to the conclusion that Melissa is family, my family. She is the first biological relative I have ever met in person, and it took quite a bit of resolve to keep my emotions in check.

This meeting drove home the fact that I still have a living grandmother and that I have much more to learn about my mother and my people and where we come from. Beyond a window into my mother’s life, I have gained a friend and cousin in Melissa.

I wish I could have known Donna Mary Turner. It sounds like I would have just missed her had I started looking when I finally had the mind to. I take little solace in that knowledge.

In January 2019, I wrote, “I am still a Knaak. And I always will be, and I am proud to be.” That still holds true, but I am also a Turner and from what I have learned so far, I am proud to be and proud to be Donna’s son.

Starting From Scratch

You’ll have to forgive me but I tend to forget that most of you follow this blog to read about my fitness journey and the struggles along the way. I have been using it more as a creative outlet and a way to share some memoirs. However, I recently remembered why I created this blog in the first place and I thought it would be a good idea to update you on my progress or lack thereof. I am a big believer in knowing where you come from in order to understand where you’re going. So, if you’ll indulge me, here is a bit of a recap …

I started this blog along with a commitment to exercise and eating better in 2013. I had hit an all-time high at 236.6 pounds and I was miserable. I found everyday tasks to be difficult and I truly hated what I saw in the mirror. It took two years, but I achieved my goal weight of 180 pounds by the end of 2014. I maintained that weight until mid-2017. I crept back up to 200 pounds or so and then dropped back down to 177 in 12 weeks. I have been gaining and losing weight ever since, and I have developed a love/hate relationship with the fitness industry. That’s a story for another day. And now, I am afraid I am very close to undoing everything I have accomplished in the better part of 10 years.

I was at roughly 215 pounds last May when I put fitness and exercise on hold until after a move. I was down to 205 last July and I was stronger than I ever have been. I have been steadily gaining ever since, fluctuating between 220-230. Prior to a recent packing on of an additional five pounds, I thought I looked better at 225 than I did the last time I was at this weight because I was in better shape. Well, add five more pounds, and that view or perception goes right out the window. Once again, I absolutely hate what I see in the mirror. I can’t remember who said it, but someone once told me that I am fueled by self-loathing. I guess that’s true. There’s some measure of wanting to be healthy or add years to my life span, but what obesity looks like on me is what motivates me, not the ill effects. Sure, everyday activities once again became uncomfortable and I get winded doing household chores, but I cringe when I see myself in the mirror.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is not appreciating what I looked like the two times I got down to 180 pounds. All I could think of each time was that I still didn’t have the body I wanted. And instead of continuing to work for it, I backed off. Not so far that I fell off the ledge, that was last summer. Unfortunately, I had to give up quite a bit of my exercise equipment in the move because there wasn’t enough room in the truck. But, that’s not a real excuse. I could go into all kinds of reasons but I’m just not going to do it. Let’s just say I tried to get back into it and just couldn’t. Fits and starts is the best way to describe it. I lost my love for running after achieving a goal, and for the past 10-11 months, I could not rekindle my passion for exercise. I was floating between 220-225 until I overindulged for a couple of weeks and gained five more pounds. I hadn’t seen that high of a number on the scale in almost 10 years and I was mortified. And then I took a long, hard look in the mirror.

My god.

Almost back to where I was in 2013 was a sobering reality. I had fallen off the wagon with daily vitamins and supplements as well. I finally said to myself that I was done screwing around. It was high time I rediscovered my love and passion, and dare I say addiction, for fitness and exercise. So, I have dug out the workouts, taken to the streets of my town more often, and gotten back to shooting hoops. The past three weeks have been great. I am trying not to obsess over the scale, but it’s difficult because the way my body works, my weight is directly proportional to body fat. I can’t reduce one without reducing the other. I’ve touched 225, let’s say that. I was ahead on my weightlifting sessions for this past week until a hamstring pull derailed me.

I will say that I am feeling better already. Strength and flexibility are coming back slowly, but surely (don’t call me Shirley). I’m sleeping better as well.

It’s funny, everyone always says you’ll have more energy when you exercise regularly. When I was at the top of my game I never felt that way, I didn’t think my regimen gave me any boosts whatsoever. Then I pretty much took a year off and oh boy, did I feel that lack of energy. I know some of it has to do with getting older. Naps are your friend when you climb well past 40. It’s amazing the things you don’t notice until you undo everything.

I’ll be back at it for Week 4 on Monday. I’ll hop on the scale and see what kind of damage I did since pulling a hamstring a few days ago. But I will tell you this, I am nowhere near done. I have a goal of hitting 180 again. It’s the best I’ve looked and felt throughout this journey. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d wager that it won’t take me two years to get back to 180. It is better to look good than to feel good. It’s always been a journey with no real destination. That’s something I forgot along the way as well.

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.