More Sex and Violence Please, We’re British – The Story of Hammer Horror

It was Scars of Dracula I think, or maybe Dracula Has Risen from the Grave...

A re-posting of an OWF favourite from our archives. It's a great read and I thought on this miserable November morning, it might be a nice one to re-visit...

More Sex and Violence Please, We're British - The Story of Hammer Horror

It was Scars of Dracula I think, or maybe Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. I was 14 and not much of a horror fan (The Lost Boys had given me nightmares. Pathetic I know.) Yet late one night, alone and flicking through the TV channels I stopped upon a beautiful young woman - running. She was being chased through a lush green forest by some lunatic on a horse drawn carriage and just when it looked like she€™d escaped, there he stood, not the lunatic, but a more grim and seductive figure: Dracula. At this point I would normally have switched off and crept nervously to bed, but like I said the woman was hot and my teenage hormones were overriding my usual inbuilt cowardice. Dracula€™s claw-like hand reached forward and tore the cloak from the woman€™s shoulders, revealing her bare neck and ample cleavage. She was breathing heavily. Dracula€™s eyes flared red (mine probably did too) and as he lent forward for that deathly embrace the woman did something I thought unheard of. She didn€™t scream €“ she smiled. This undercurrent of sexuality Hammer Productions brought to their graphic British horrors made their films dangerous. It still does. Even today, some 32 years after the studio shut down, there is something forbidden about these movies. Watching Dracula that night on TV I knew the film had an illicit edge. It was on around midnight, the last programme before BBC shut down for the night (in the days before 24hour television.) It was erotic, bloody and otherworldly; both enticing and terrifying. It was like nothing I€™d ever seen.

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In the 1950s when Hammer first turned to Horror, these films were even more contentious. Sex was a taboo subject and violence was something that happened off screen. Hammer changed all that. The release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 was met with repulsion from serious critics appalled by its explicitness. The Tribune called it, €œa peepshow of freaks,€ The Times recommended it for, €œsadists only.€ Frankenstein may seem tame by today€™s standards but in that instant, the modern horror movie was born. Formed in 1934 by William Hinds, Hammer Productions Ltd began by producing €œpre war quota quickies,€ films shot fast and cheap to ensure low budgets and maximum returns. Yet the rise of television saw them struggle. In the 1950s, threatened by declining cinema sales, executive producer James Carreras and producer Anthony Hinds decided to exploit cinema€™s one trump card - the X certificate. With British television aimed squarely at families and BBC director Lord Reith insisting that TV €œeducate, inform and entertain,€ Hammer sniffed out a market in adult orientated pictures. Beginning with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) (X for X-rated), ironically based on a TV show, Hammer offered a magnificent and visceral horror rarely seen in 50s cinema and prohibited in its TV counterpart. The film (based on the sci-fi story by Nigel Kneale and featuring a hideous, pulsating space organism) proved a hit, paving the way for the bloodiness of Frankenstein. A gothic horror with shades of Byronic romance, The Curse of Frankenstein set the tone for almost every Hammer production to come. Starring Peter Cushing as an unscrupulous Baron Frankenstein and a towering Christopher Lee as the scarred monster, the film€™s affluent Victorian-era setting and frank depiction of bloodshed would become a studio trademark.

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The film was traditional but new. Mary Shelly€™s story had been filmed before, most famously in the 1931 classic starring Boris Karloff. But where that lurked in cobwebbed towers and dripping dungeons, Curse€™s setting was more recognisable, set in warm houses and cosy dining rooms, accentuating the everyday attractiveness of evil. You can imagine sharing a drink with this Frankenstein, all the while wondering what goes on it that lab of his. Jack Asher€™s luxurious cinematography adds an opulent decadence and James Bernard€™s score completes the theme, its creeping drama and grand menace is romantic, but full of horror. Director Terrence Fisher relished the opportunity for onscreen nastiness, stating, €œI know it€™s fashionable to say that the unseen is the most scaring; but I don€™t believe this!€ The Curse of Frankenstein delights in scenes of Grand Guignol, from the monster€™s festering, mangled, chalk corpse face (Universal Studios had denied Hammer permission to use the Karloff template) to scenes of gruesome surgery as the Baron hacks and saws at cadavers. For the first time in British horror, these terrors were filmed in colour, a move that emboldened the grotesque action. Shot on Eastman stock, the film is lush, vivid and iconic. When, during surgery, Frankenstein wipes a bloody hand on his apron, the blood is stark crimson red. It is unreal in it vividness, but lurid and thick and obscene. It€™s the kind of blood that oozes out of your nightmares.

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In 1958 this same lucid blood would drip from Christopher Lee€™s hungry mouth in Hammer€™s remake of Dracula (retitled The Horror of Dracula in the US.) The film upped Curse€™s visceral nastiness with scenes of stakes through hearts and in its climax of the Count rapidly decomposing in sunlight (a scene later mirrored and taken to its extreme in Sam Raimi€™s The Evil Dead(1982).) What Dracula added was a potent sexuality inherent to Bram Stoker€™s novel and vampire mythology. The vampire has always been a magnetic and enticing creature, a monster that doesn€™t kill you by rabidly tearing apart your flesh, but by seduction and a gentle embrace. Lee€™s Count is urbane and attractive; his bride sumptuous and carnal. They are fear and desire in one. Alone with those two beautiful monsters in that stormy and windswept Transylvanian castle, Jonathan Harker never stood a chance. Despite pushing the boundaries of cinematic sex and violence, Hammer were cautious of going too far. They carefully adhered to the parameters of the x-certificate and submitted their screenplays to the British Board of Film Censors ahead of production. Despite being one of the most successful British studios of all time, any film denied release could have crippled them financially. Such is the British film industry. Still, Hammer offered the perfect antidote to the atomic obsessed sci-fi horrors dominating the 50s, such as The Day the Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Them! (1954) Thanks to Frankenstein and Dracula the studio became a global phenomenon. Numerous sequels followed and were joined by Hammer€™s spin on a pantheon of other genre classics: The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and Plague of Zombies (1966) amongst others. By the 60s Hammer was a household name.

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Whether by accident or astute design they had caught the mood of a changing world. Hammer was at the forefront of a social shift towards youth culture and a political and sexual liberation. Their movies increasingly explored the conflict between repression and liberation so pertinent to 60s Britain. They dealt with modern issues and dilemmas, yet hid these themes in dark castles and bloody labs. 1966s Dracula: Prince of Darkness saw Barbara Shelley play a prissy, uptight and dressed to the neck Victorian lady who after a night with Dracula becomes an unbound physical temptation, ripe with lust and bloody desire. There was a joyful freedom to her transformation, one that as in most Hammer pictures is brutally cut short by an older generation (in this case an gun-toting Abbot) fearful of nubile young things running amok. But the sexual revolution could not be stopped so easily and accordingly Dracula and his brides would rise again throughout the 60s and 70s. In 1968 the rest of the horror genre began to catch up. Both Rosemary€™s Baby and George A. Romero€™s Night of the Living Dead were adult, unnerving and relevant. Hammer was steadily becoming repetitious and familiar - too reliant on Victorian gothic. A further relaxation in censorship (the x-certificate rose from 16 to 18 year olds) saw the studio retaliate in the only way they knew how: an increase in sex and violence. The sex in early Hammer productions had been prominent but alluringly subtle and always relevant to the subtext. But in 1970s subtext could go to hell and beauties (often ex-models or Playboy bunnies) and bare breast became the order of the day. The Vampire Lovers (1970) sees the curvaceous Ingrid Pitt as a vampire seducing and feeding upon a number of buxom young women. This vamp preferred biting breasts to necks and the gratuitous lesbianism shocked many. Producer Anthony Hinds referred to these new films as, €œsoft porn shows,€ and retired shortly after. The shift began to reek of desperation. These films appealed to teenage boys, but few else.

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A sixth Dracula sequel, Dracula A.D 1972 was another vein attempt to appear hip, transporting the Count to swingin€™ modern day London. Despite Hammer initially being at the forefront of the counter culture movement the film€™s treatment of €˜hippies€™ came 10 years too late. €œThe Count is back with an eye for London€™s hot pants,€ ran the poster€™s tagline. Watched today the hammy dialogue (€œDig the music, kids!€) a lame funk score and the €˜crazy€™ hippy scene give the film a camp enjoyment, but at the time it showed only one thing; Hammer had become outdated. The studio spluttered on for another three years before finally crawling into the grave in 1975. Their unique brand of horror could no longer complete with big budget Hollywood frightfests such as The Exorcist (1973) or the low budget gruel of the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974.) Hammer had laid the foundations for modern horror and, no longer needed, died screaming. Over the years there have been talks of a rebirth. A few months ago a German consortium announced that Hammer would rise again. But this seems academic. They will never match the verve and bravado of the originals. And these originals are still out there, living an undeath on DVD and late night television. They lurk in the dark, waiting for some unsuspecting viewer to stumble across them and become enslaved by their macabre beauty. Theirs is a world still full of magic and wonder and eroticism and danger. When I think of Hammer I don€™t scream - I smile. Tom Fallows
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