For the second time in as many articles, I am going to talk about The Woman in Black. The latest offering from Hammer and Eden Lake director James Watkins has continued to perform well on both sides of the Atlantic, and, while it’s still only March, is already shaping up to be one of my favourite films of 2012.
I’ve talked before about the resurgence of old-fashioned ghost stories, of which The Woman in Black is the most recent example. The most important aspect this time round is the phrase: “the latest offering from Hammer”. Having lain dormant since the late-1970s, the brand which made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (amongst others) has risen from the grave and seems here to stay. Having tested the water in the past couple of years, as the UK distributor for Let Me In and the backer of the modest cult hit Wake Wood, the commercial success of The Woman in Black has allowed the studio to move forward with other projects. As I write, the studio is beginning production on Gaslight, a film about Jack the Ripper described as a cross between From Hell and The Silence of the Lambs.
Of course, Hammer is by no means the only iconic movie brand to have resurfaced in recent years. Several years ago, Ealing Studios resumed production with a new backer. The studio once famous for classic black comedies like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets is now giving us the rather embarrassing St. Trinians reboots and John Landis’ gleefully underrated Burke and Hare. But what does the return of Hammer say about the British film industry in the 21st industry? And assuming that the studio is here to stay, what role should it play?
Re-treading Old (Burial) Ground
As usual, it seems most fitting to start with the most cynical opinion imaginable. To the cynical eye, the rebirth of Hammer is an utterly reactionary act, symptomatic of wider trends in the 21st century. The developed economies of the Western world are driven not by the creation of new goods but by the consumption of services; we no longer create or make new things, we just become more efficient at using what we already have. Western culture reflects this, eating its own tail and trying to make money in the process. The erosion of traditional notions of morality has created an artistic culture of conservatism and insecurity, where money is the only judge of value and worth, and audiences and communities are merely numbers.
Of course, not everyone who shows concern about old names and stories turning up may take such an extreme view. Not everyone who expresses dislike for the latest remake will launch into a profound and moving elegy for Western civilisation (more’s the pity). And, being a film reviewer rather than an economist, I may be inadvertently building straw men, creating caricatures purely for the sake of deconstructing them. Maybe, just maybe, things aren’t quite so bad.
One part of the ‘retreading old ground’ argument which cannot be entirely disputed surrounds the decline of Hammer in its original form. In the 1970s the studio found itself fighting a war on two fronts – its mainstream commercial success was being undercut by American efforts like The Exorcist and The Omen, while its reputation at the cutting-edge of cult horror was being challenged by giallo filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Hammer responded by retreating into its comfort zone, churning out endless sequels with its most successful characters and losing younger audiences in the process. Christopher Lee always bemoaned the number of Dracula sequels, and the studio’s later efforts obeyed the law of diminishing returns, both creatively and commercially.
It may be true that previous attempts to re-launch the brand were motivated more by nostalgia than a desire for innovation. But this charge can be more fittingly laid at the feet of new organisations who have sought to plug a gap in the market left by the demise of original brands. What are the ‘mockbusters’ of Asylum Films if not a blatant copycat of Troma, the studio behind such ‘forgotten gems’ as Surf Nazis Must Die, Toxic Avenger and Teenage Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell?
The Spirit of British Filmmaking
A more rounded and optimistic view would be that the revival of Hammer is a good sign for the British film industry. The reason for this optimism lies not in meaningless nostalgia, but in acknowledging the unusual nature of British filmmaking, both as an industry and an aesthetic (or series of aesthetics).
British films have always been in direct competition with American offerings because the vast majority of them are made in the same language. This ‘unfortunate convenience’ and the market choice is produces creates a climate in which money is more likely to trump artistic or entertainment value – and, as a side product, make us more reluctant than our multi-lingual European neighbours to read subtitles. Because American films are generally made with more money, and because the American distributors have larger and wider infrastructure, they generally stand a better chance of dominating the English-language marketplace.
Because the British film industry has never been able to compete with Hollywood on its own terms, it has developed its own quirks and oddly effective means of getting around the barrier of shared language. One such quirk is its ambivalent relationship towards the studio system, with British contract stars seeming to have greater flexibility than their US counterpart. While American studios had to give permission for rival companies to hire their actors, in Britain actors moved around doing bits and pieces everywhere, including several long stints in the theatre. Hammer succeeded in the first place because it provided an umbrella under which British talent could be sheltered, nurtured and then promoted, using shared visual styles as a platform for individual fame.
We may no longer be living in an age where every local cinema has a Hammer horror film showing on a Friday night. The industry is more fragmented both in the production of films and the composition of its audiences, and horror is no exception to this rule. But with multi-million-dollar marketing and big studios using their legal muscles against piracy, it is useful to have the banner of Hammer to give attention (and distribution) to the smaller, more interesting films that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. This is not a guarantee that every Hammer offering will be better than the latest action blockbuster or American studio horror, but it is a useful and important means of promoting the variety which the industry so desperately needs.
Forward to the Past?
If the return of Hammer is a good thing, the issue that remains is what shape the new output should take. There needs to be a balance between embracing the past and celebrating the future. Hammer’s back catalogue is full of horror gems, from Dracula: Prince of Darkness (recently re-issued on Blu-Ray) to more left-field efforts like The Devil Rides Out. These should be celebrated and revered but not to the point where they stultify creativity. In short, the studio needs to work like Roger Corman used to work: giving filmmakers their first break by getting them to work within generic constraints, so that they gain both the discipline they need to deliver a project on no money and the support from within the industry which will produce great work.
There are already signs of this happening with The Woman in Black. James Watkins made something of a storm with Eden Lake, which attracted its fair share of Daily Mail headlines and public outcry. But for all its virtues it was in the end a ragged and undisciplined piece of work, which ended up falling between several stalls. The Woman in Black is a much more refined work with better pacing and better character development. Most impressively, it manages to embrace the old tropes of cinematic ghost stories with a firm intention to demonstrate their continuing worth and power. Watkins’ film shows not just that there is life in the old horse, but that new talent is coming through, being incubated in genre films such as this before going on to reshape the genre in due course.
When we look at what is happening in the film industry as a whole, we see that studios like Hammer are needed more than ever. The big Hollywood studios are starting to go the way of Hammer the first time round, retreating into their shell in both the content they create and the way in which they sell it. They are following easy money rather than giving talent the time it needs to develop. Instead of trying to offer something new, and embrace the day-in-date revolution as Hammer did with Wake Wood, the likes of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox give us ever more conservative films, using gimmicks like 3D to try and keep us in cinemas, and threatening legal action to anyone who wants to be different.
In this environment the likes of Hammer may provide the way forward, combining the prestige and tradition of their respective brands with an embracing of new talent and technology, providing audiences with greater choice at their convenience. In the right hands Hammer can once again become the bastion for British horror talent that it was in the past, but more than that, it can set an example to the monoliths of Hollywood as to how talent should be handled. All we have to do as audiences is to be patient, allowing the likes of Watkins to develop their craft and achieve success little by little. On the basis of what we have seen so far, the future looks positively… ripping.