Film

The Film Studio that Perfected Cheap Horror Movies in the 1950s

A two-part series at the Quad Cinema chronicles the cheaply made and formally rich horror movies that the UK’s Hammer Films began producing in the 1950s.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness, from left: Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee (1966) (trademark and copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp; all rights reserved; courtesy the Everett Collection)
Barbara Shelley and Christopher Lee in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) (trademark and copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp; all rights reserved; courtesy the Everett Collection)

As New York edges closer to summer, the city’s film fans have a rare opportunity to enjoy frights, shocks, and scares long before the perennial horror deluge that hits repertory cinemas every October. Quad Cinema (where, full disclosure, I moderated a panel in April about the cult film Liquid Sky) is taking a look back at the classic horror offerings of the British studio Hammer Films in the two-part series “Hammer’s House of Horror; Part I: The Classic Years (1956–1967),” which runs through June 19, with “Part II (1967–1976)” set to follow in July. For Quad’s Senior Programmer Gavin Smith, honoring Hammer’s legacy is long overdue since its films remain “mysteriously unacknowledged apart from the occasional screening” in the New York City repertory scene.

The studio’s story begins in 1934, when Hammer Film Productions was incorporated by founder William Hinds, a comedian and businessman who used the stage name Will Hammer. After weathering a slump in the British film industry during World War II, a post-war demand for escapism led to an uptick in cinema attendance that bolstered Hammer’s fortunes. Early productions mainly consisted of radio drama adaptations and American co-productions featuring stars whose careers were in decline. The game changed for Hammer with the success of its 1955 film The Quatermass Xperiment, a science fiction feature whose alien antagonists presaged the studio’s true calling card: monster movies.

The Quartermass Xperiment (1955, Val Guest) (photo by Mary Evans, Hammer Film Productions Ltd., courtesy Everett Collection Via Quad Cinema)
The Quartermass Xperiment (1955, Val Guest) (photo by Mary Evans, Hammer Film Productions Ltd., courtesy Everett Collection Via Quad Cinema)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Peter Cushing (courtesy Everett Collection via the Quad Cinema)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) (courtesy Everett Collection via the Quad Cinema)

When 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein became a worldwide phenomenon, Hammer turned into a cinematic factory, producing films that were written, directed, and produced in-house. These movies were primarily inspired by the rich British literary tradition of gothic horror, drawing terror from mood more than cheap jump scares. Well-known characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, and more provided a built-in audience that would return to the cinema for sequel after sequel; Peter Cushing (as Van Helsing, Dr. Frankenstein, and others) and Christopher Lee (best known for his Count Dracula) breathed new life into these familiar stories in what would become some of their most beloved roles. To maintain a lucrative efficiency, locations and props were reused by multiple films, and casts and crews often shot productions back-to-back (like, for instance, Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin: The Mad Monk). While the bare bones budgets of these celluloid shockers yielded heavy profit margins, they also created a unique visual shorthand that focused on maximum impact at minimum cost.

“I think that’s partly what’s behind the shocking reddish orangeness of the blood (in Hammer films),” explains British horror scholar Dr. Lindsey Decker of Boston University. “That was something that was very easy to do and could take your attention off the fact that they were using this castle for the tenth time.”

Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee (1958)(courtesy Everett Collection, via Quad Cinema)
Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee (1958)(courtesy Everett Collection, via Quad Cinema)

As the work that Smith calls “the ideal gateway film” and “one of Hammer’s greatest achievements,” Horror of Dracula (released in the UK in 1958 as simply Dracula) is perfectly representative of this phase in Hammer’s filmmaking. Adapting Bram Stoker’s novel, director Terence Fisher — the most prolific auteur in the Hammer stable — terrifies the audience by cloaking the film in a thick atmosphere of dread. He favors long shots with camera movements pulling the viewer through interiors where threats might lurk. As the vampiric count, the debonair Lee likewise calmly strides through rooms, but he also hurls his gargantuan six foot, five inch frame through the air without warning, leaping in displays of hyper-masculine menace. All of these elements congealed to form a style that won the loyalty of horror fans around the world.

It certainly helped that Hammer was working with a proven business model. While these films borrowed stories from the annals of classic literature, the Universal monsters series provided the template for how to make those stories profitable. Just as Universal Studios did starting in the 1930s, Hammer spun each of its popular monster movies into as many films as the market would support. For instance, the Hammer Dracula series clocked nine films between 1958 and 1974, far outpacing the character’s Universal film count. The similarities between the two companies’ work did not go unnoticed; Universal actually threatened legal action against Hammer if any elements of its Frankenstein series — including the iconic Boris Karloff makeup — surfaced in The Curse of Frankenstein. The US studio soon changed its tune, though; after a profitable experience co-producing Horror of Dracula, it opened its catalogue of classic horror to Hammer for further collaborations.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Peter Cushing (courtesy Everett Collection via the Quad Cinema)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) (courtesy Everett Collection via the Quad Cinema)

While commercial success came to Hammer’s horror productions quickly, critical respect evaded it for decades. “In the US, we always think about horror as kind of a low culture genre. So people talk about Saw, and they complain about torture porn. Now you get things like Get Out and A Quiet Place where people say horror can be social,” Decker says. “In the UK, horror is much more poorly regarded.”

Hammer finally achieved some measure of critical respect with the 1973 publication of critic and filmmaker David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror: 1946–1972. In this book, Pirie embraced the uniquely British roots of Hammer’s gothic horror films as something of a national treasure, inspiring cinephiles to start treating the work with the respect audiences had given it for decades.

Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) (trademark and copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corporation; courtesy Everett Collection)
Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) (trademark and copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corporation; courtesy Everett Collection)

However, this critical reevaluation coincided with the waning years of the studio’s heyday. When the graphic violence that was the studio’s main selling point became more commonplace in films following the New Hollywood revolution of the late 1960s, Hammer added more sexual material to its films in an effort to continue to appeal to exploitation audiences. A mass funding crisis in the 1970s rendered these efforts moot when US studios pulled their support for Hammer. Coupled with the rise in popularity of “adult” American horror films like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the studio’s film output ceased completely before the end of the decade.

With the exception of a highly influential television anthology series bearing its name in the 1980s, the Hammer brand remained dormant until 2007, when investment firm Cyrte Investments purchased and revived it. Unfortunately, the new leadership was wholly uninterested in creating the sordid genre delights that most associate with Hammer; Decker describes the new films — including 2012’s The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe — as seeking to convey an air of “safe gothic responsibility.” In a time where this is the only Hammer experience available on the big screen, Quad’s revival is a welcome reminder of the gritty thrills that made the brand — and the horror genre — so adored in the first place.

Hammer’s House of Horror, Part I: The Classic Years (1956–1967) continues at the Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street, West Village, Manhattan) through June 19. Part two of the series will take place in July.

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