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What Makes a Hammer Horror Film

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Hammer Films: Birth of a Studio | Filmography
Hammer Stars | Hammer Horror | What makes a Hammer Horror film? | Hammer Films: The Final Years | Hammer Today

It may be because of the traditional Gothic backdrop or the cast of familiar faces, but it's fair to say there's something very recognisable about a Hammer film. This entry takes a light-hearted look at the elements that made each film quintessentially Hammer.


In the 1950s, we might have seen the odd trickle, but by the time of The Satanic Rites of Dracula in the 1970s, the blood was flowing aplenty. Hammer blood is always vivid red, giving it a theatrical appearance quite unlike the darker stage blood of more 'realistic' films.


From the beginning, Hammer tapped into a different 'vein' to other horror films, bringing sex and sexuality to the fore. At first, this remained subtle; Dracula's method was to lure his victims in a way more akin to a seduction than a murder. As the permissive 1960s progressed, Hammer moved with the times to line up a string of beauties waiting to peel off their clothes for the sake of 'art'. The Vampire Lovers introduced lesbianism to the Hammer canon, while the aptly-named Lust for a Vampire featured an unprecedented amount of (tastefully lit) female nudity. Knowing their audience all too well, Hammer's male nudity never extended beyond a bare chest - usually just before it was staked, stabbed, whipped or bitten...


Hammer music is, again, instantly recognisable. The theme tune (invariably conjured up by composer James Bernard) often spells out the film's title - eg the brassy 'DRA-Cu-Laaa!', the heavy drums of 'Plague of the ZOM-bies!' or the staccato beats of the theme from 'Vam-Pire Cir-Cus'.


The principal person responsible for the Hammer look was designer Bernard Robinson. Working on over 40 Hammer productions, Robinson created numerous laboratories, tombs, crypts, castles and mansions, and skillfully adapted the filming locations to suit the film, often doubling or tripling up locations in films, which can be seen in such double bills as Plague of the Zombies/The Reptile and Dracula - Prince of Darkness/Rasputin.

Coupled with set design is the horrific make-up, specifically that designed by gore and fang specialists Phil Leaky and Roy Ashton.

Location! Location! Location!

Hammer's home for their peak period was Bray Studios in Windsor. Just the other side of Slough, not far from Bray, lies Black Park. Offering a lake, thick woods and dirt-tracks lined with trees, the estate provided the film makers with a stunning backdrop for horse-drawn carriages to race, monsters to lurch and lost urchins to explore.

The Stars!

The single most recognisable aspect of a Hammer film is its stars. It's perhaps for this reason that pictures such as The Wicker Man are erroneously linked to Hammer simply because of the presence of Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt.

So, arguably, the perfect Hammer production would star Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Ingrid Pitt or Ralph Bates, with a guest appearance by Michael Ripper as the pub landlord and Francis Matthews as the hero. It would be set in an Eastern European village surrounded by a forest and in the shadow of a huge castle. It would be based on a Victorian novel and feature a lesbian sex scene shortly before one of the women was killed (with plenty of blood) while the climax to the picture would feature a dramatic chase through Black Park on a horse-drawn carriage.

And of course, its theme would represent its suitably lurid title... Revenge of the Scars of the Evil Vampire Zombie Risen from the Devil's Tomb, perhaps?

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