Hammer Films is a British film production company founded in 1934 by William Hinds and James Carreras. It was made famous in the 1950’s for reimagining the gothic horror for a modern audience. It was one of the most prolific movie production companies right up until the 1970’s, and produced some of the most famous, classic horror movies of all time. It also dabbled in psychological horror and thrillers, and to this day, many of its movies are considered to be some of the best examples of classic cinema out there. They utilised big names, plenty of gore and and top directors, to bring tired old horror tropes, such as the mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein, into the brave new world of cinema. In this article, we will take a look at just some of the greatest Hammer Horror movies ever made.
The Horror Of Dracula
This was the first in a series of movies produced by Hammer and focusing on the the story of Dracula. It was released in 1958 and was originally just titled ‘Dracula’, but was later changed to ‘The Horror Of Dracula’ so as not to be confused with the 1931 Universal Studios movie starring Bela Lugosi. The film stars Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Chusing as Van Helsing. Both Cushing and Lee were two of Hammer Horror’s major stars and would both go on to star in a huge number of their movies throughout the next few decades. The Hammer Studios version of the story is far closer to the original source material, the novel, Dracula, by Bram Stoker. The story follows the infamous count as he journeys from Transylvania to England. There, he ensconces himself entirely into the London night scene, and he begins to rack up victim after victim. During this time, Dracula runs afoul of his arch-nemesis, Van Helsing. This signals the beginning of a battle of wills between the two. The movie was heavily censored in Britain when it was first released, with all of the goriest moments cut out. However, in 2012, there was a definitive version of the movie released, which had all of the chopped scenes reestablished and remastered. The movie really put Lee and Cushing on the map, and paved the way for many sequels starring the two, and for many non-Dracula follow-ups with these actors as well.
The Plague Of Zombies
Released two years before Night Of The Living Dead, would revolutionise the Zombie genre, this 1966 offering is widely accepted as being the precursor to the the George A. Romero classic. The movie is chillingly atmospheric, and shies away from the camper element, that became the archetypal fare of the Hammer movie, in later years. This was also the studio’s only foray into the world of zombies. The plot follows the tale of an eccentric Cornish squire, who enslaves local villagers, using voodoo curses, and using them to work in his tin mines. A doctor and his daughter soon discover the unpleasant nocturnal habits of the shambling undead slaves, and they call upon a detective to investigate. The script is a subversive commentary on the rift between the British aristocracy and the exploited working class, but despite this, the film is less a political allegory than a spooky chiller. It surmounts to a well crafted, atmospheric horror opus, that ranks among Hammer Films’ finest.
One Million Years B.C
One Million Years B.C was Hammer’s biggest box office hit. Released in 1967, it starred the hugely famous Raquel Welch as the main female character with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, (of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon fame). The movie is essentially a tale of a prehistoric man, banished from his home, only to find love and comfort in the arms of a different, much gentler tribe. Despite the many glaring historical inaccuracies, this movie is still one of Hammer’s greatest achievements. The movie depicts many battles between man and dinosaur, which, despite the fact that approximately 64 million years separated dinosaur kind and man, still make for thrilling action sequences. If we remove our logic hats, and watch this movie as a fantasy film, we are guaranteed to have a great time. Ray Harryhausen truly outdoes himself, with brilliant stop motion dinosaurs. With the scene depicting a battling Triceratops and Ceratosaur being a particular stand out moment. The movie also features the more standard film of a real live iguana, dressed up and made to look huge, however even this scene looks better than most of its ilk. While there is no broader social commentary in this one, it makes for a hugely entertaining fantasy epic, and the outstanding special effects cement its place as one of Hammer’s most impressive cinematic spectacles.
The Devil Rides Out
The Devil Rides Out was released in 1968 and stars Christopher Lee as the aristocrat Duc de Richlea. This was one of the few roles where we get to see Christoper Lee play the good guy for Hammer, and it really pays off. We are treated to a masterful performance by Lee that could be argued as his best. The movie was directed by one of Hammer’s greatest, Terence Fisher, and it is an adaptation of the popular 1934 eponymous novel by Dennis Wheatley. The story is concerned with not just a brief encounter with evil, but a full-fledged campaign against it. The audience is treated to depictions of séances, satanic orgies, summonings, and even car chases. A twisting, high octane tale of high-society satanism, this movie has secured itself deep within the hearts of many horror movie fans, and has proven to be a hugely popular cult classic.
To The Devil A Daughter
To The Devil A Daughter is another adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel. This time set in modern times however, and released 8 years after The Devil Rides Out. Not as critically acclaimed as the aforementioned cult classic, To The Devil A Daughter is still one of Hammer’s great satanic tales. It is also notable for being the second last movie the studio would make for over 30 years, and was the third adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel. The film tells the story of American expatriate, occult writer, John Verney (Richard Widmark), who is approached by Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott), to try and rescue his teenage daughter Catherine (Nastassja Kinski). Catherine is a practicing nun from a mysterious group called the Children Of The Lord, which is presided over by Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee), a priest who has fallen from the true faith. Verney succeeds in intercepting Catherine at the airport, and takes her to his flat near Tower Bridge. However, Rayner has the advantage of black magic, and the ability to use it from afar on Catherine, in an effort to regain her for his own dastardly ends. The movie was a fitting end to the impressive reign of the ‘Hammer Horror‘ behemoth, and certain scenes of the movie were so shocking that Dennis Wheatley refused to allow the production company to buy the rights to any more of his novels. Not that it mattered too much to the studio. One year after filming To The Devil A Daughter, they closed down until 2007 when they reignited their creative fires to bring us Beyond The Rave which was released in 2008.
This was one of Hammer’s rare attempts at Hitchcockian suspense, and it works surprisingly well. Mostly because of the stand out performance by Bette Davis as the titular ‘Nanny’. Wendy Craig also gives a stellar performance as the mother. It follows a London family as they collect their son from a psychiatric unit he has been staying at for the last two years. In the car, with the mother and father, is Bette Davis’ Nanny. The young son, Joey, wants nothing to do with the Nanny, and when he arrives home, he wants to do everything for himself, and seems to have a deep hatred for the seemingly caring, sweet and quaint childhood Nanny. We soon learn that the family has a tragic past, namely, the death of their young daughter a couple of years previous, for which young Joey was blamed. We also learn that Bette Davis‘ character has been the family Nanny for two generations now, and is much beloved by everyone in the household. In a creeping tour de force of psychological terror, the movie draws slowly and menacingly to its horrifying climax. It is a lesson in fear of the ordinary. Helped along massively by one of Davis’ most nuanced performances, this movie really showed that Hammer was not just a playground for schlock horror and campy monster movies. It could also house some outstanding thrills and terrifying suspense movies.
Straight On Till Morning
This 1972 suspense thriller follows a young girl, Brenda, as she moves to London in search of a man to father a child for her. She immerses herself in London life, getting a job at a boutique and attending parties with her co-workers. Upon fleeing one of these parties, she encounters a dog off his leash. A man is shouting for the dog, however Brenda steals it in a clever ploy to meet the man. When she eventually returns the dog, Brenda is faced with a beautiful but troubled young man named Peter, who suggests she moves in with him. What Brenda doesn’t know, however, is that Peter is, in fact, a psychotic serial killer with a deep loathing for beauty and all of its trappings. He is completely controlling of her, and the movie closely follows her descent into a torrid and disturbing love affair, and Peter’s further decline into madness. Director Peter Collinson shows these characters’ fragmented grip on reality by having his editor, Alan Pattillo, slice up the film with syncopated shots, jump cuts and pronounced discontinuities of both space and time. The result is a heady incline towards Brenda and Peter’s individual and collective derangement. The film has less of a connection to Hammer’s characteristic ‘Castle Horror’ and more to the modern suspenseful, psychotic thrills, of a Dario Argento ‘Giallo movie’. Straight On Till Morning forgoes the usual Hammer gothic motifs, and sets itself up as a contemporary classic.
Fear In The Night
This 1972 offering from Hammer studios is one that leans quite heavily on ‘Gialloesque’ themes, and combines them with the drab insipidness of 70’s rural Britain, and the effect is really quite chilling. The story is that of Peggy, (Judy Geeson) a young woman who, 6 months earlier, suffered a breakdown and spent some time in hospital. Now that she is healthy and out of the hospital, she is set to move with her husband to the countryside, to the boarding school he works at. Before leaving, however, Peggy is attacked in her home by a black glove wearing assailant, (queue Giallo influence). Despite her sincerity, the people around her are more inclined to believe she’s imagining things, based on her recent brush with mental instability. They leave for the school however, and the young couple meet with the headmaster Michael (Peter Cushing),a cold and detached character. They also meet Michael’s wife, played by none other than Joan Collins. Things continue to go wrong, more perceived attacks on Peggy’s life leave her husband believing that she is suffering from another breakdown. Fear in the Night does not centre around the question of Peggy’s sanity, since we are led, from the offset, to believe her, and be resolutely on her side. What it does is paint a chilling tale of intrigue, begging the questions; who is attacking Peggy, why are they doing it, and what is up with the boarding school and its very creepy headmaster? It is a subtle and measured tale of deception, and the end still delivers, despite its predictability.
As previously stated, the company stopped producing movies in 1979, after a remake of Hitchcock’s 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes, starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd. The company went into hibernation until 2007 when they made Beyond The Rave, a contemporary vampire story which premiered for free online via MySpace. Hammer would go on to begin shooting a new horror movie in Donegal in 2008, backed by the Irish Film Board. The film is titled Wake Wood and stars Aiden Gillen and Eva Birthhistle, and was scheduled for release in the United Kingdom in the Autumn of 2009. However, the release date was delayed, and the movie wasn’t given a theatrical release in the UK until 2011. Despite the slightly rocky start of a long awaited revival, Hammer Horror movies are now back in production, with seven movies having been made in the last 10 years, and their latest offering, The Lodge, set to premier at the Sundance Film Festival, 2019.