Just as one studio dominates the superhero movie genre today, so did a singular studio define horror for generations of film buffs in the second half of the 20th century — combining familiar characters and concepts with a recurring cast of actors and an individual approach to the genre to create something that, more than 50 years later, still remains a high water mark for horror filmmaking to this day, albeit one that a number of genre snobs turn their noses up at. I’m talking, of course, of British production company Hammer Film Productions, the eponymous home of what became known, simply, as “Hammer Horror.”
Hammer got its start in the early days of commercial cinema, with comedian William Hinds registering the name all the way back in 1934; in its first, brief incarnation before a temporary bankruptcy brought about by a failing domestic market in the late ‘30s, the company produced just five features — although one, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Phantom Ship in the U.S.), unintentionally acted as foreshadowing for what was to come by featuring Bela Lugosi in a supernatural mystery story. When the brand was revived post-World War II, executives appeared to have learned their lesson by focusing on relatively low budget productions adapting existing properties or stories.
Indeed, it was Hammer Mark 2’s desire to work with known quantities that launched the Hammer Horror era; in 1955, the studio sought to take advantage of what was still a relatively new phenomenon in British cinema — the X certificate, intended to classify a feature film as suitable only for adult audiences. (Not to be confused with an XXX certificate, used to denote obscene material.) Licensing the acclaimed BBC science fiction television serial The Quatermass Experiment — retitled The Quatermass Xperiment, to emphasize that all-important X certificate — Hammer accidentally uncovered a market ready for exploitation; an audience ready for garish, sensational scary stories that could be produced relatively cheaply and quickly. Within two years, three further sci-fi horror movies were released by Hammer… but that was just the beginning.
Even as Quatermass 2 went into production in early 1956, the studio was looking to expand. A screenplay loosely based on the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein found its way to the studio via an American distributor, and after multiple reworkings — not least because of concerns that the original script borrowed too heavily from Universal’s Son of Frankenstein movie, which remained in copyright, unlike Shelley’s original book — The Curse of Frankenstein made it to theaters in May 1957, bringing with it a revolutionary new take on horror.
It wasn’t just the casting of horror icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (as Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation, respectively) that made the movie such a big deal. Before Curse, both actors were relatively unknown, with Cushing familiar to audiences primarily for television projects including adaptations of 1984 and Pride and Prejudice. Lee, meanwhile, was even less well known, and reportedly cast purely because his 6’5” height seemed appropriately inhuman. Instead, it was the aesthetic of the movie, which was one of the first horror movies shot in color.
Despite its gothic setting, The Curse of Frankenstein was an unexpectedly lurid affair, with bright colors making the gore all the more eye-catching. After all, this was likely the first time audiences had the chance to see such voluminous amounts of bright red blood flowing across the screen. Who could resist? Well, aside from snobby cinema critics, who complained that the movie was “depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema.” (Yes, that was an actual quote from a real review that appeared in The Tribune at the time.)
Audiences loved it, however, with the movie becoming a significant success internationally. Filmmakers, too, were enamored with its over-the-top appeal; the movie was said to have inspired talents from Roger Corman (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Italian Giallo directors, with later talents like Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese singing its praises decades after the fact.
Hammer knew that it was onto a good thing, and went on to make six further Frankenstein movies across the next two decades. Moreover, it realized that the combination of classically trained actors, pop-art color choices, and recognizable horror characters available in the public domain was a potential goldmine.
Those recognizable factors are still what makes the Hammer brand such a powerful name in horror. While modern moviegoers are wowed by their favorite actors playing demons with CGI pulling the majority of the weight of any shapeshifting or gore featured center stage, the mark of Hammer is something that still sits in the back of the mind. Regardless of whether someone has seen any of the films in Hammer’s lengthy horror output, if one was to ask someone to close their eyes and envision Count Dracula, the image most likely to come up would feature the bloodshot eyes of Christopher Lee; same for Victor Frankenstein, who for many -- if not most -- conjures up the image of a meek and studious-looking Peter Cushing, swirling his beakers and preparing for the birth of his most monstrous creation.
The studio’s incredible ability to, ultimately, democratize horror imagery and monsters doesn’t always fall on the shoulders of its actors either. Despite the indelible acting chops of Lee, Cushing, and the many other big names that graced the low-budget halls of Hammer Films, the aesthetics of Hammer Horror are very much thanks to their design, use of color, and -- something that British tv and film have always managed to excel at — the embrace of all things camp.
Often deviating from their grim, purposefully staid source material, features like Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein — not to mention all that followed — created iterations of these monsters that felt so far out of left field and somehow elevated by Hammer’s commitment to the low budget. Hammer Horror reminded viewers that horror wasn’t something that needed to be stuffy. Gone were the days where vampires and the dark sensuality of monsters meant stern actors, gauche sets, and gothic romance — instead embracing the animal-like behavior of the beastly people and creatures whom they featured and going straight for the jugular when it comes time to let the tropes hang loose.
Horror fans of the era had become accustomed to the green-skin, neck bolts, and square features of the Frankenstein monster, but Lee became an entirely new kind of unsettling, reimagining Frankenstein’s monster as a blotchy-skinned, heterosexual-chromatic-eyed, shaggy-haired creation of his master’s ego. In the same way, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing presents as a charming but dispassionate detective hunting down Christopher Lee’s Dracula — a monster whose screen time is surprisingly limited, but is enveloped in a stylish persona similar but not identical to his predecessor Bela Lugosi — charming, aristocratic, and even a bit bizarre, what with all the skulking and hissing, of course.
Though the traditional Hammer Horror found itself down the tubes and losing viewership by the early 1970s, the studio’s revival in the late 2000s once again found an eager audience ready for something different from the norm. Creating a string of low-key titles such as Let Me In (a remake of the acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In), The Woman in Black, The Lodge, and several others, there’s no question of Hammer’s ability to withstand market forces, cinematic trends, and whatever else threatens its survival, continuing to find a place for British-backed horror among larger, better-funded Hollywood box office smashes.
There are a lot of ways to enjoy horror movies nowadays, as studios find their way out of the woodwork, creating horror extravaganzas not only killing it in the mainstream box offices but winning praise and awards alike at film festivals all over the world. Horror has, once again, become the genre of the moment, fitting in with the kind of existential terror the world has been going through for the last few years. For as many scares as we’ve become familiar with as film fanatics, however, it’s hard to deny that current trends for wacky concepts, bold scares, and creative reimagining of distinct cultural stories all, ultimately, can be traced back to the same root in the British cinematic landscape. After nearly 70 years of horror films on the back burner, there’s still only one choice to rely on for perfection, some laughs, and an admiration of everything macabre. At this time of year especially, make it Hammer Horror.