A Haunting Hammer History

Writter by author, NKKingston

old hammer h

Word went around last month that Hammer was quietly retiring the old H. When the company resurrected itself in 2007 it did so with a new logo, but the H still appeared on merchandise and packaging (and still appears on some of t-shirts in the Hammer store). Though I preferred the old H to the plain font they’ve gone for, as changes go it’s a pretty minor one. Hammer don’t appear to be taking big risks yet; their first four theatrical releases all have links to Hammer’s long and infamous history.

Myths, Monsters and Remakes

Let Me In and The Woman in Black are both based on already existing properties. It was this same approach in the 1950s that launched Hammer into the public consciousness. Perhaps adapting Frankenstein and Dracula were no-brainers, but it was the rights they bought to TV serials such as The Quatermass Experiment and The Creature (remade as The Abominable Snowman), plays such as The Man in Half Moon Street (remade as The Man Who Could Cheat Death), and well known novels such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, that provided the staples of their schedule. This isn’t to say Hammer weren’t putting out a variety of original screenplays at the same time, but when we think of Hammer’s early output it’s Doctors Jekyll, Frankenstein and Van Helsing than come to mind, not Dr Adam Royston and his attempts to combat X the Unknown. It was easier to pitch films based on properties that had already proved their success to the American production companies that made up so much of Hammer’s financing, and equally easy to then pitch sequels when the films proved as successful as expected.

Of course, there are problems inherent in buying rights to other people’s work, especially when it’s still under copyright. Even when dealing with sources that weren’t the company ran into trouble thanks to previous adaptations. When Hammer registered the title The Curse of Frankenstein Universal threatened to take them to court if the new film contained any elements unique to their films. In particular, Boris Karloff’s copyrighted creature make up. Hammer submitted the script to Universal in advance (a technique they’d use to try and pacify the BBFC on multiple occasions and save them from costly reshoots, though it didn’t always work) but Universal refused to read it. They had nothing to complain about, in the end, though the British press labelled the films as suitable “for Sadists Only” (Cambell Dixon of The Daily Telegraph). The British public, naturally, loved it.

The Woman in Black will have to compete with a famously excellent stage adaptation. Where the play breaks the fourth wall, the film breaks the third dimension. Hammer’s first foray into 3D (having dodged the gimmick when it was still in its red and green phase) adapts Susan Hill’s most famous ghost story. Ghosts aren’t entirely new for Hammer, but they never had the pulling power of more corporeal monsters, and it will be interesting to see how they approach it.

Vamping it Up

What could have been more traditional for Hammer to re-launch with than a vampire film? And one still in copyright, as Dracula was when they first took it on. However, Let Me In has less in common with Hammer’s vampire stable than some of its supernatural-free films; the loss of childhood innocence is vaguely redolent of paedophile drama Don’t Take Sweets from Strangers. It’s certainly not the kind of film Hammer are likely to build a franchise on.

For a long time Dracula was Hammer’s leading vamp, repeatedly killed off and resurrected (unlike Frankenstein, who simply fled to a new Alpine town every time the credits rolled). However, as Christopher Lee became more and more reticent about returning to the role, and demanded a higher and higher fee, Hammer began to look around for other literary vampires to exploit. They lit upon Carmilla, who predates Dracula and comes with the added bonus of implied lesbianism, and several films loosely connected to the character were made (also known as The Karnstein Trilogy). Lacking the immediate recognition of Dracula, though, she never gained his status in the history books. Hammer would choose to round out its vampire stable with Captain Kronso: Vampire Hunter and the somewhat baffling Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires instead.

Thrilling Thrillers

Horror was Hammer’s bread and butter, but they also used to make swashbuckling adventures, war films and even straight comedies. Most of these go unremembered now and Hammer doesn’t appear to be planning to revive those genres any time soon. However, they did run a good line in thrillers, starting with Taste of Fear in 1961 and winding up with double bill Straight on Til Morning and Fear in the Night.

The thrillers came and went, never quite as profitable as the gorier horror films, but they’re often considered some of Hammer’s best work even if there are a few shameless Hitchcock rip-offs amongst them. Still, the forthcoming The Resident will be in good company when it comes out this year. The thrillers often had darker endings than the horrors – these were not characters Hammer would ever resurrect for a sequel – and tended to suffer at the hands of the BBFC, who were as squeamish about implied violence as they were about Hammer’s typical buckets-of-blood approach.

Cults, Covens and Satanists

Wake Wood, to be released in March this year, has more in common with To The Devil a Daughter, Hammer’s last film before they folded, than with their earlier offerings. The cults, covens and satanists became a Hammer staple in the late sixties and early seventies (along with increasingly erotic sequels to the older films) but their ‘village with a dark secret’ plots were too British for American audiences. Often of patchy quality, films like The Witches didn’t appeal to Hammer’s usual audience and failed to capture them a new one, even in the UK.

Funding continued to decline and the American market started producing serious horror of its own. Not only was the overseas market shrinking, but these American films were invading Hammer’s home territory. Plague of Zombies might have inspired Night of the Living Dead, but even a Hammer fangirl like me acknowledges that the latter is the superior film.

Hammer was starting to look quaint and old fashioned. They started mining TV for new blood: Brian Clemens, best known for his work on The Avengers, gave them clever and ironic films like Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter while TV series On the Buses gave them a spin off franchise that propped up the company financially.

Eventually, Hammer folded, though some careful financial footwork allowed them to squeeze out a couple of anthology series, Hammer House of Horror and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. Unable to build on these shows, though, Hammer sank from view.

The Afterlife Begins at 50

Hammer turned 50 in 2007, the same year a European consortium, headed by Dutch based Cyrte Investments BV, bought out the company. In 2008 they released Beyond the Rave online in partnership with MySpace, and not long after that they announced Let Me In and The Resident. Hammer was back from the dead.

Win 21 Hammer Films with Monster Awareness Month and NKKingston!

NKKingston has generously offered a giveaway of a 21 film boxed set of Hammer films for one lucky winner. For details of how to enter, just follow the link below for details:

NKKingston’s Hammer Film Giveaway

 

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Filed under Article, Film, Monster Awareness Month

One response to “A Haunting Hammer History

  1. Pingback: Monster Awareness Month Giveaway! | Solelyfictional

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