Few studios have had the distinction of their style of filmmaking constituting an entire sub-genre of cinema. While some like Disney for animation and Japan’s Toho for kaiju movies may spring to mind, the seminal example of this phenomenon is Hammer Film Productions, or Hammer Horror as it is colloquially known.
True to its nickname, the British company pumped out a series of horror films that terrified audiences around the world throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Breaking sharply from the stagy, black and white paradigm established by Universal’s Monster Movies, Hammer breathed new life into the genre with a flashy style that can best be described as Technicolor Gothic. This novel approach not only brought the studio international success and profits during its heyday but influenced—and for that matter, still influences—viewers to this day. Kate Bush paid tribute to the company’s films with the song “Hammer Horror”, Edgar Wright conceived Don’t, the fake trailer he directed for Grindhouse, as an affectionate parody of them, and filmmakers as disparate as Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, and Tim Burton have all cited their movies as major influences on their work.
Entire books have been written about the studio’s bountiful filmography, so let’s consider five movies that serve as a good intro to the sensuous style of Hammer Horror.
From the stone eagle perched on the castle tower to the overly-saturated blood dripping on the title character’s coffin, the opening of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (released in the US as Horror of Dracula) tells the viewer everything they end need to know about the Hammer method of horror. It’s gaudy, it’s gory, and it’s Gothic to the point that one worries it might get up and sack Rome.
Making little pretense of following Stoker’s novel, Hammer’s Dracula forsakes the predominantly English setting of Universal’s version in favor of an Eastern European neverland where the towns have German names, the background characters dress like Russian peasants, and the main characters speak in the King’s English. Further betraying the production’s British identity is the Victorian (or is it Edwardian? I’m not quite sure) dress so preferred by Dr. Van Helsing and his upper-crust peers, with the good doctor alone flawlessly donning everything from fur-lapelled overcoats to red velvet blazers over the course of the film.
Brought to life by the expressive gaze and dispassionate delivery of company favorite Peter Cushing, Van Helsing follows in the vein of Sherlock Holmes with his use of deductive reasoning and command of the facts, inspiring just as much confidence in viewers as he does in supporting characters. Filling the Watson role is Michael Gough (who would go on to play Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman films) as the book’s Arthur Holmwood, depicted here as a noble who is initially skeptical of Van Helsing’s claims of vampirism but comes around and faithfully aids him once the evidence becomes undeniable.
Ironically, Dracula appears only briefly but fellow Hammer regular Christopher Lee does enough in the limited screen time he has to distinguish his portrayal of the character from Bela Lugosi’s. Presenting a facade of aristocratic charm similar to Lugosi at first, Lee quickly discards this persona like a disguise that’s no longer useful and spends the rest of the movie lurching and hissing like the monster his character really is. The count’s animal-like behavior conveniently complements the sensual tone courted by the film, insinuating that some of his female victims might not mind his illicit late-night visits to their bedrooms.
Whereas later adaptations like Bram Stoker’s Dracula try to hew more carefully to the source material while others like Nosferatu the Vampire take Stoker’s story to unprecedented artistic heights, Hammer’s Dracula aims and attains the more modest goal of giving audiences a stylishly original take on the classic tale to sink their teeth into.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Released a full year before Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein features many of the same characteristics and players its predecessor. Terence Fisher also serves as director on this production, and the dynamic duo of Cushing and Lee stars in this one as well. While it features Cushing in the role of the human protagonist and Lee in the role of the monster once again, it offers a very different take on the relationship between the two.
Deviating about as far from Mary Shelley’s novel as Dracula does from Bram Stoker’s, Victor Frankenstein is re-imagined here as Baron Frankenstein, a brilliant scientist whose ambitious obsession and weak moral compass leads him to kill and endanger others in his quest to create life. Played with ruthless resolve by Cushing, the baron is a suitably sinister counterpart to the actor’s Van Helsing.
Yet as removed from Shelley or even Universal as Cushing’s version of Frankenstein is, Lee’s iteration of the monster is out of left field enough to be straight up weird. The square head, neck bolts, and green (or yellow, depending on who you ask) face paint we’ve all come to know and love are gone, replaced by a strange creature with heterochromatic eyes, blotchy white skin, and, impressively, a mop top at a time when Paul McCartney had just started playing rhythm guitar for a little band called The Quarrymen. Funnily enough, with its black overcoat and pale skin, the monster bears more resemblance to Max Schreck’s Nosferatu than Boris Karloff’s monster. Despite the best efforts of Frankenstein and others to convince us the creature is evil by nature, Lee taps into the spirit of the Universal film and suggests the monster, while obviously a menace, is yet another victim of its creator’s hubris.
With regard to art direction and set design, Hammer’s trademark bright colors are present in the fanciful garments worn by Frankenstein and the liquids contained within the flasks in his laboratory. For that matter, the baron’s laboratory pretty much codifies the way a mad scientist’s lab should look and sound, with bubbling beakers, whirring machinery, and the water tank in which his unconscious creation is stored (The Rocky Horror Picture Show parodies this last item, as well as uses Hammer filming location Oakley Court, as part of its loving homage to the studio). It’s stimulating imagery like this that makes The Curse of Frankenstein an excellent, energetic example of Hammer horror.
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Val Guest’s Himalayan horror The Abominable Snowman is an interesting offering for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s in black and white, giving it even more of a B-movie feel than Dracula and Frankenstein. It stands in stark contrast to the lurid Technicolor of the preceding entries, but it lends itself well to the snowy landscape the film is set in.
Based on a teleplay by Nigel Kneale, the movie shows its BBC origins with its sparse setting. Most of the drama takes place on sets constructed by the crew, with doubles filling in for all of the principal actors when the plot required scenes be shot on location. The film’s limited violence also speaks to the project’s television background (as well as its differences from the studio’s later films), with there being next to no blood, if any, seen for the 91 minutes it runs.
Instead, Guest emphasizes the psychological aspects of Kneale’s story, depicting the toll taken on the characters’ by their search for the elusive Yeti and suggesting they pose more danger to themselves than any snow-dwelling simian ever could. In fact, the titular monster barely appears onscreen (not, for a change, unlike the aforementioned movies), but its presence is felt throughout—enough to make a certain viewer run screaming out of the room and leave him scarred for life when he first saw it in the 4th grade.
Anchored by Kneale’s imaginative story and convincing performances from the ubiquitous Mr. Cushing and Western TV regular Forrest Tucker, The Abominable Snowman is an early indicator of Hammer’s ability to craft films that are as intelligent as they are chilling.
Loosely adapted from the 1940s crime novel Brat Farrar, Freddie Francis’ Paranoiac might be a contentious entry for this list. One of several “mini-Hitchcocks” put out by the company, the film mainly draws inspiration from thrillers like Psycho and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques but it nevertheless bears key features of the Hammer Horror aesthetic.
Though set in the present, the inter-familial intrigue, the old dark house in which the principals live, and the prim, proper costumes they wear point to the Gothic tradition that the film (and Hammer as a whole) owes so much to. Additionally, the movie’s suggestion of ghostly presences illustrates its tendency to dip its toes into straight horror without plunging all the way in. Not to say that there aren’t frightening moments: on the contrary, there’s a couple appearances by a mysterious figure who is ghastly enough to make anything that even begins to approach it in Dracula or Frankenstein look quaint by comparison.
Also conspiring to set the mood is Elisabeth Lutyens’ diegetic music (with a child’s singing to the accompaniment of an organ used to especially unsettling effect) and the remote, seaside village setting, which is removed enough from civilization to feel like anything could happen there. Topping it all off is a memorable performance by Oliver Reed as the conniving son of the Ashby family. Seamlessly alternating between cruel but collected calm and frantic derangement, Reed captures and conveys the full spectrum of his character’s madness.
While it lacks the colorfully gory flavor of Hammer’s better-known movies, Paranoiac wears its black and white look to beautiful effect and charts a mind-bending road of its own.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Another potentially-controversial entry is Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit. Released in the US as Five Million Years to Earth, the film is an adaptation of the final installment of the BBC’s Quatermass serials, a science fiction series penned by Nigel Kneale that influenced everyone from Stephen King to Stanley Kubrick (to say nothing of a time-traveling doctor who shall not be named). As such, its inclusion might be even more questionable than Paranoiac, but there’s a strong case to be made for considering it a proper Hammer horror.
Though the movie has a decidedly sci-fi premise in the form of workers discovering a rocket surrounded by ancient apelike skeletons in the London Underground, the pacing and atmosphere are classic Hammer. When the authorities prove unwilling to consider alternate explanations of the rocket’s origins, it falls to Professor Quatermass and his colleagues to find out the true significance of the strange ship, with Andrew Keir’s Quatermass nicely serving as a sci-fi stand-in for Cushing’s Van Helsing. Spending much of their time in the pit where the rocket was found, there’s a consistent sense of claustrophobia that contributes to the vague yet unshakable dread that the movie cultivates.
But what really cements the film’s status as a Hammer Horror is the way it weaves in supernatural elements, skillfully blending paranormal phenomena and demonic imagery into the modern, reason-based world it takes place in. With an electrifying climax that will forever change the way you look at cranes, Quatermass and the Pit is a tense, thought-provoking production that leaves a burning, lasting mark on viewers’ memories.