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For almost sixty years Hammer has been synonymous with horror. Ever since Christopher Lee first emerged as the eponymous mad scientist’s hideous monster in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, the studio has terrified and fascinated audiences in equal measures. Even after ceasing production on feature films in the late 1970s, the influence of Hammer could be felt decades later through the works of Tim Burton and Doctor Who.
‘Hammer’s legacy as the most consistent, durable and successful horror film production company of all time is testament not just to the quality of the personnel involved but also to their tendency to adapt to whatever was the current trend, be it Psycho rip-offs, sexploitation or kung-fu vampires,’ declared BFI in a retrospective.
Originally formed by entrepreneur William Hinds as Hammer Productions in 1934, it would be through a partnership with music hall proprietor Enrique Carreras that Hinds – known around London as Will Hammer – would launch a distribution company called Exclusive Films Ltd the following year. During this time Hammer would produce their first feature film The Mystery of the Mary Celeste and over the next decade they would develop a succession of dramas adapted from the radio.
In 1951 a new significant name would be added to Hammer’s ensemble: Terence Fisher. Making his directorial debut for the studio with The Last Page, Fisher would ultimately be responsible for many of the company’s most successful pictures, including Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy. By this point Hammer had already found a permanent home at what would soon become known as Bray Studios, where they would develop and shoot their features films for the next twenty years.
By the dawn of the 1960s Hammer had gained considerable acclaim both in the United Kingdom and over seas through their mixture of gothic landscapes, big-breasted maidens and bloodletting. Along with Lee, another veteran of their numerous monster movies was Peter Cushing, whose role as Dr. Frankenstein would soon be followed by Dracula‘s Van Helsing. One of the most iconic images that the company would be responsible for, however, was of Raquel Welch dressed as a provocatively-dressed primitive in Don Chaffey’s 1966 classic One Million Years B.C.
But the horror broadcast by the American media of the escalating war in Vietnam soon left Hammer’s offerings feeling somewhat tame in comparison and despite their attempts to give more explicit sex and violence, audiences soon developed a taste for more extreme pleasures through the likes of The Exorcist and The Last House on the Left. ‘Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s ultra-low budget black-and-white movie in which the dead rose from the grave, would in time eclipse Hammer in influence,’ claimed Uproxx on the changing trends of the era.
Following the release of To the Devil a Daughter in 1975, the company struggled to remain relevant under the leadership of Carreras’ grandson Michael and as deals fell apart and projects languished in development hell Hammer offered one last picture with a remake of the Alfred Hitchcocl class The Lady Vanishes, itself based on a novel by Ethel Lina White. Instead, they turned their attention to the small screen with Hammer House of Horror and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense.
‘Although sometimes derided by purists…in its most successful instalments, Hammer House of Horror is worthy of comparison with some of the better films from its namesake canon,’ explained Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes in their book The Hammer Story. ‘Until the company resumes production, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense stands as the final chapter; a flawed but fascinating coda to one of the most remarkable sagas in British film history.’
In 2007, over twenty years after the company had ceased production, Dutch media magnate John De Mol acquired the rights to the Hammer brand and all its previously-produced titles in a deal that placed Liberty Global executives Simon Oakes and Marc Schipper in charge of running the newly-revived enterprise. ‘Hammer is a great British media brand that has lain dormant but lived on in people’s imaginations,’ stated Oakes at the time. ‘It is more intelligent and character-driven than traditional American ‘goreography’ and we intend to capitalise on this and make it a global brand.’
Although the first project developed after Hammer’s resurrection would be an underwhelming web series, within three years the brand had once again become a viable force through their reworking of the Swedish vampire drama Let the Right One In. Soon other Hammer would gain further success with their adaptation of the supernatural horror tale The Woman in Black and its sequel Angel of Death, along with the supernatural flick The Quiet Ones. ‘We asked ourselves the question: if Hammer had carried on from the late 1970s, where would it be today?’ Oakes told the Independent in 2012. ‘It’s a welcome return. We’ve managed to fire people’s imaginations.’
FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE (1953)
Following his introduction to Hammer with The Last Page, within the next few years Terence Fisher would become the studio’s most prolific filmmaker and by the time Four Sided Triangle entered production the following year, he had already completed four pictures for the company. While many of their films had been melodramas, Four Sided Triangle would be their first foray into the world of mad scientists with the tale of best friends Bill and Robin who both fight for the affection of the same woman. When she finally decides which she wants to be with, the other decides to use their scientific breakthrough to create an identical copy of her. While ostensibly a romantic drama with sci-fi undertones, the movie would mark a significant change in the progression of the company.
While the primary focus of Hammer in the early 1960s was the gothic horror that had served them well at the box office, the studio began to explore psychological thrillers commencing with Taste of Fear, released one year after Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark horror Psycho. Following the investigation of a young woman into the disappearance of her father, among the potential suspects were the charming limo driver and the family doctor, a rare out-of-make-up appearance for Christopher Lee. Initially produced under the title Hell Hath No Fury and released in America as Scream of Fear, Taste of Fear gained mixed reviews and would become lost among the company’s more successful pictures of the day.
Loosely based on Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar, Paranoiac would mark Jimmy Sangster’s eleventh produced screenplay for Hammer. Much like his script for Taste of Fear, Paranoiac would feature a character who may not be who they seem, with a stranger arriving at the estate of the Ashby siblings, claiming to be their supposedly-dead brother, much to the anger of a cruel and sadistic Oliver Reed. Barely resembling its source material, the movie was released on a double-bill with the studio’s Kiss of the Vampire in January 1964, the latter closer to the demands that the public had for Hammer products.
THE MUMMY’S SHROUD (1967)
Along with Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer would also turn the success of 1959’s The Mummy into a franchise with three sequels that would conclude twelve years later with Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. 1967’s The Mummy’s Shroud would follow a group of archeologists and professors in search of an Egyptian tomb who unwittingly unleash a curse that begins to terrorise the expedition one-by-one. The last picture that Hammer would produce at Bray Studios, The Mummy’s Shroud would share its billing with the company’s latest sequel Frankenstein Created Woman.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)
By the release of The Vampire Lovers in September 1970, Peter Cushing had already faced demonic bloodsuckers on numerous occasions through his affiliation with Dracula, although he had been absent from Taste the Blood of Dracula, produced the same year. Produced with financial assistant from an American company most known for funding Roger Corman’s early 1960s pictures, The Vampire Lovers encountered controversy even before the cameras began rolling when the screenplay came under fire from the British Board of Film Censors for its explicit violent and sexual content. Inspired by the classic tale Carmilla, the film would touch upon themes of lesbianism that would be explored even further the following year in Jess Franco’s arthouse horror Vampyros Lesbos.
COUNTESS DRACULA (1970)
Ever since Universal first brought Bram Stoker’s titular vampire Dracula to the screen in 1931, filmmakers had searched for ways to add a fresh spin to a well-told tale. Initially these had included comedies such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but by the 1970s character had been incorporated into blaxploitation (Blacula) and the Andy Warhold-produced Blood for Dracula. Hammer’s new take on the character would be Countess Dracula, in which in which Ingrid Pitt, fresh from her leading role in The Vampire Lovers, would take on the lead role of a countess feeding on the blood of young women in an effort to regain her youth. Filmed at the legendary Pinewood Studios, Countess Dracula made its debut in early 1971 to mixed reviews.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)
Arguably the most infamous serial killer of all time, the true identity of Jack the Ripper remains inconclusive but the assailant terrorised the London area of Whitechapel throughout 1888, abducting and mutilating young prostitutes and taunting the police with letters. In Hands of the Ripper, director Peter Sasdy explored the concept of how following the death of the Ripper his evil may have lived on it his offspring, in this case his daughter Anna. ‘There’s a violence in this girl, I felt it there,’ declared one character in the film’s theatrical trailer. ‘Something horribly violent.’ Hitchcock had struggled to bring a graphic exploration of a killer to the big screen, with his Kaleidoscope project slipping into development hell, but in 1972 he would take inspiration from both Jack the Ripper and his own early classic The Lodger for the graphic horror Frenzy.
TWINS OF EVIL (1971)
Released the same day as Hands of the Ripper, John Hough’s Twins of Evil would follow sisters Frieda and Maria are they are sent to live with their uncle, a feared witch-hunter who soon takes issues with the promiscuous nature of his nieces. Featuring prominent nudity from actress Madeleine and and Mary Collinson, both of whom had appeared as Playmate in the Month in Playboy the previous year, the central role would be that of their uncle, Gustav Weil. Once again portraying a hunter of evil, much like that of Van Helsing, Peter Cushing would dominate the picture while David Warbeck, who would go on to collaborate with Lucio Fulci in the early 1980s, would appear as Maria’s love interest.
Written by Judson Kinberg and based on a treatment by George Baxt, Robert Young’s Vampire Circus continued Hammer’s growing trend of pushing the boundaries of nudity and blood in an effort to compete with its more explicit American counterparts. Although the picture would once again find the studio exploring the well-worn concept of vampires, the premise would allow the filmmakers to incorporate more theatrical visuals as the eponymous circus arrives in town. Featuring seventeen-year-old Lynne Frederick who, just a few years later, would marry comic legend Peter Sellers, Vampire Circus would mark Young’s first foray into Hammer and while it would remain his only cinematic contribution to the studio, he would direct an episode of Hammer House of Horror almost a decade later.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK: ANGEL OF DEATH (2014)
While much of the hype around 2012’s The Woman in Black had focused on Daniel Radcliffe’s first leading role outside of Harry Potter, the movie had proved to be an effectively creepy experience and so Hammer decided to make their first sequel since its relaunch with Angel of Death. Scathed upon release by both British (the Telegraph described it as ‘murky and unsatisfying’) and American (Variety complain that ‘nothing much happens at all for the first hour’), the Second World War-set sequel was effectively directed by TV veteran Tom Harper and was set against the backdrop of evacuees escaping from the London bombings into the English countryside, only to stumble upon the horrifying mysteries of the Woman in Black.