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Known the world over as 'The Studio that Dripped Blood', Hammer was the most successful British film production company ever, in terms of both output and box-office. Though their massive catalogue of films incorporated all manner of genres, it was for one particular type of film that they are best-remembered - horror.
Hammer's horror movies can be roughly divided into a number of smaller categories.
It's not surprising that, having enjoyed such a monumental success with The Curse of Frankenstein that they should follow it up with a sequel... or six (after all, Universal Studios made numerous sequels to James Whales' 1931 version). The Frankenstein follow-ups can, to be fair, divide into the innovate and the derivative. The first sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), offers us an emotionally-engaging tale with a monster gifted with a sense of intelligence and compassion which is lacking in pretty-much every cinematic adaptation of Shelley's novel bar Kenneth Branagh's in 19941. The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) however, is a step back, being a reworking of Hammer's first attempt, and with a shoddy-looking creature that both imitates and mocks the classic design established by Universal with their own Frankenstein series.
Hammer took a metaphysical approach with Frankenstein Created Women (1967) in which the amoral doctor discovers the way to transfer a person's soul into the body of another (and discovering plastic surgery in the process!). Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) was a further reworking of the basic concept, though by this time the blood-letting and sex (including an uncharacteristic and unnecessary rape scene) are more evident - the film begins with an incredibly visceral murder in a scene that ends with a rather ingenious twist. Horror of Frankenstein (1970) was a rather ill-advised attempt at comedy, again reworking the first film, this time with Ralph Bates as the Baron and Dave Prowse - later to play Darth Vader in Star Wars - as the monster. Finally, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell brought us Hammer's (to date) last flirtation with Dr Frankenstein (or Dr Stein as he chose to call himself). Dave Prowse once again played the monster, a lumpen, more ogre-like beast, while the violence reached an all-time high with a genuinely unsettling scene involving the shards of glass from a shattered bell-jar being shoved into the camera. Audiences might have been grateful that the film wasn't made during one of the regular revivals of 3-D movies.
That other famous Victorian doctor, Dr Jekyll, managed to make two appearances in the Hammer canon. In 1960, Terrence Fisher directed The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, a fairly successful adaptation of the personality-shifting thriller by Robert Louis Stephenson. By 1971, Hammer clutched at straws with the gimmicky Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde in which Ralph Bates played the idealistic doctor desperate to prolong his life in order to spend more time curing life-threatening diseases. His attempts are hindered by his erratic transformations into the seductive murderess, Sister Hyde (played by the staggeringly beautiful Martine Beswick). Dovetailing the activities of both doctor and sister into the events surrounding the case of Jack the Ripper, it's a surprisingly effective film, helped in no small part by an intelligent script from Brian Clemens.
Glamorous, seductive, undeniably sexual in nature, the vampire is a creature that runs through all of human mythology, right back to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. It was Bram Stoker's novel Dracula that really grabbed the public's imagination, to the extent that this single novel is responsible for most of the public understanding of the concept of vampirism, including all the usual trappings of Victorian Gothic literature.
In terms of cinema, along with Frankenstein, Dracula had been a mainstay of the long-running Universal series of films, first with Bela Lugosi in the starring role and later with John Carradine, so it's not surprising that Hammer decided to follow up their first Gothic horror success with another. But whereas Universal's Dracula had - due to Lugosi's own strong Hungarian accent - spoken with a heavy Eastern European voice, Hammer's Dracula would be altogether more urbane. When Christopher Lee first walks down the steps of his castle to welcome Jonathan Harker, it is with such style and warmth that his eventual unmasking as a vampire is much more startling.
Of course the fact that Lee's Dracula was the first to bare fangs on screen might have also had something to do with it...
The first Hammer Dracula (1957 - known as Horror of Dracula in the USA) was as faithful to the novel as Universal's version had been (that is; not very). Arthur Holmwood takes a more central role in the cast while Jonathan Harker is sidelined as a secondary character. We learn that vampires cannot risk exposure to sunlight - it is fatal to them, as is a wooden stake through the heart - and the sight of a crucifix or cross can weaken them instantly. Vampire expert Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) informs Arthur that, contrary to popular myth, vampires cannot transform into animals such as bats or wolves. Strangely, he seems to have revised his beliefs in transmogrification by the time of the first vampire sequel, Brides of Dracula, where he gets first-hand evidence of a 'vampire-bat'. He also learns that vampires can be destroyed by fire. Incidentally, this film had nothing at all to do with Dracula, the vampire on this occasion being a Baron Meinster.
The first proper Dracula sequel came in 1966 with Dracula - Prince of Darkness, the first of Christopher Lee's mute performances - having despaired at the script he was given for the film, Lee refused to speak the dialogue. Here, we learn that vampires - or at least Dracula - cannot only be killed by fire but by running water. Cue a rather tense battle on a frozen lake and a rather wet demise for the newly-resurrected Count.
In the best traditions of the old RKO serials of the 1930s, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave cheats its audience by undoing the climax to Prince of Darkness and resurrecting the merely-frozen Dracula by virtue of some carelessly-spilled blood (from a priest, no less!). Taste the Blood of Dracula sees the Count awoken once more, this time by an ancient ritual. Reminding us of the problems vampires have with crosses, Dracula crumbles to dust after being locked in a church. Scars of Dracula, the bloodiest of all Hammer films (often unnecessarily so) is undermined somewhat by a spectacularly unimpressive rubber bat flapping about. The film does, however, restore one scene from the original novel - where Dracula is seen crawling up the side of his castle on the outside - and it features possibly the most impressive of all Drac-despatches, where the Count is harpooned to the ground by a falling railing just as the sun rises.
Dracula AD 71 is a veritable mine of information for the avid vampire hunter. It begins with a flashback scene to a previously-unseen battle on a horse-drawn carriage between Van Helsing (Peter Cushing again) and Dracula. When the coach crashes, Dracula is speared through the chest by the spoke from a broken carriage wheel and Van Helsing watches as the monster crumbles to dust. But once the good professor is out of the way, an ambitious young man (played by Hammer regular Christopher Neame) scoops up Dracula's dust into a container. Cut to 'modern' day, the groovy 1970s, where that self-same young man, now living under the name 'Johnny Alucard' invites his friends to join him in a resurrection ritual. While a descendent of Van Helsing (also played by Cushing) sits working out that 'Alucard' is 'Dracula' backwards (really!?), the dangerous teenager revives Dracula once more. Johnny is later killed by being held underwater in a bath (running water again), while Dracula himself is despatched by a combination of a silver knife (merging the legends of the werewolf and the vampire quite deftly) and a stake.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula gives us Hammer's final Dracula film to star Christopher Lee. Here, his vampire brides are killed when a sprinkler system is activated (taking the running water concept a little too far) and Lee's Dracula is finally killed by being ensnared in a hawthorn bush. The thorns of the hawthorn were, apparently, used to form Christ's crown for his crucifixion.
Although Christopher Lee had finally given up on Dracula for good (with Hammer, at least - he played the role twice more in other non-Hammer productions), The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires instead starred John Forbes-Robertson as Dracula for a short time before the character transformed into... a Chinese vampire. The twist here was that while crucifixes no longer had any effect on the monster, images of Buddha did! Released in America on its initial run as Dracula Meets the Seven Brothers, the film might have mislead audiences into believing it was a wise attempt to link Hammer horror to the blaxploitation2 trend of the time, instead of a leap onto the kung-fu bandwagon; the 'brothers' of the title were in fact a family of Chinese vampire hunters, accompanied by their sister and Professor Van Helsing (played for the last time by Peter Cushing).
As has already been mentioned, Hammer were not afraid of venturing into vampire territory without Dracula. But even outside the Dracula series, there was little consistency concerning what we have learned about the vampires. The Kiss of the Vampire revealed that vampires can indeed venture out in daylight - so long as it is overcast. In the Karnstein trilogy - The Vampire Lovers; Lust For a Vampire; Twins of Evil, the vampires seem to be unaffected by daylight of any type, although they are unable to return to their graves without their death-shroud. Also, the vampires were not so much resurrected in the Karnstein family so much as reincarnated, represented by each generation of Karnstein daughter taking the name of their predecessor in the form of an anagram - so Carmilla returns as Mircalla, who returns as Marcilla, and so on...
Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter offered little new to the mythology of vampires (apart from the tidbit that a dead toad can be revived if it is placed on a vampire's grave3, althoug it did cover its bases by stresing that there are many ways to kill a vampire as there are as many types of vampire as there are races of humanity, each with different weaknesses and strengths. Vampire Circus (this Researcher's favourite non-Dracula Hammer vampire flick) offers us circus-performing vamps transmogrifying into bats and panthers as well as the news that a vampire can be revived simply by removing the stake that killed him. Perhaps considering the vampire legend to have become a little diluted, Countess Dracula cheats her way into this Entry, for while she did not bite her victims or even transform into a bat, she did bathe in the blood of freshly-slain virgins in order to stay young. Oil of Olay is hard to come by in Eastern Europe, it seems.
Additions to the Menagerie
Along similar lines to Frankenstein were the series of films featuring everyone's favourite embalmed tragi-hero. In Hammer's The Mummy (1959), Christopher Lee's Kharis owed much to Boris Karloff's version for Universal in the 1930s. The other mummy films - The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Shroud and Blood From The Mummy's Tomb tended to be, if anything, even more formulaic than the Frankenstein series. At least Blood From The Mummy's Tomb had the double bonus of an appearance by Valerie Leon (as both Margaret and the Egyptian Queen, Tera) and a script based on the book by Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.
For further Hammer monsters, check out: The Curse of the Werewolf; The Gorgon; The Plague of the Zombies; The Reptile and The Phantom of the Opera.
Sci-Fi and Fantasy
In addition to Quatermass, Hammer tackled a number of other science fiction and fantasy-related stories. In amongst X - The Unknown - a sub-Quatermass battle against an alien force - and The Damned - in which Oliver Reed starred as a member of a gang in a post-apocalyptic World - came a sub-genre of films to do with Lost Worlds: She (starring Ursula Andress) and The Vengeance of She were adapted from the books by H Rider Haggard, while One Million Years BC featured dinosaur effects from the legendary monster-maker Ray Harryhausen) and introduced the stunning Raquel Welch; Slave Girls, The Lost Continent and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth continued Hammer's brief diversion into prehistoric hysteria, though none came close to matching the popularity of Raquel Welch in the clutches of a pteradon.
Scripted by regular Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster, Maniac was the first of Hammer's loony features, dealing with psychological inbalances that were more in the Hitchcock mould. Equally melodramatic titles included Paranoiac, Hysteria and Fanatic - known in the USA as Die! Die! My Darling! Two other psychological thrillers of a more domestic variety, The Nanny and The Anniversary starred one of cinema's greatest screen monsters - Bette Davis.
Other Entries in this Project
- Hammer - the Birth of a Studio
- The Hammer Filmography
- Hammer Stars
- What Makes a Hammer Horror Film
- Hammer Television
- Hammer Films - the Final Years
- Hammer Today