One great Hammer horror for every year (1957-74)

On the 60th anniversary of the first true Hammer horror, we select one essential Hammer classic from each of the famed studio’s golden years.

Kevin Lyons

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

On 2 May 1957, 60 years ago, a very special film was released in London cinemas. The Curse of Frankenstein, from Hammer Films, was the the first of the now legendary British studio’s great gothic horrors, which would come to dominate the horror genre for the next decade and a half.

Hammer had dabbled in horror before. As early as 1935, they’d cast Bela Lugosi in The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, while in 1952’s Stolen Face they had an obsessed plastic surgeon altering a woman’s face to more closely resemble his lost love. Their adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s chilling BBC science fiction serials, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass II (1957), then suggested the shifting of gears, but it was the release of The Curse of Frankenstein that really put the company on the map. Directed by Terence Fisher, this reimagining of Mary Shelley’s story brought horror into the colour era, terrifying audiences with a blend of gothic thrills and lurid bloodshed that came to define Hammer’s celebrated output.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary, let’s look back at the best Hammer horrors, selecting one key release from each of the studio’s glory years, from 1957 to 1974. These 18 films defined the Hammer horror brand.

1957:

The Curse of Frankenstein

Director Terence Fisher

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The rebirth of the gothic horror film, wresting audiences back from the atomic horrors of 1950s science fiction. In star-making roles, Peter Cushing plays Frankenstein and Christopher Lee is the monster, while cinematographer Jack Asher captures the gory goings-on in glorious Eastmancolor. It angered critics but was lapped up by the public.

1958:

Dracula

Director Terence Fisher

Dracula (1958)

Christopher Lee dons the Dracula cape and fangs for the first time and establishes himself as the definitive screen count. Cushing is on hand again, this time on the side of the angels, as vampire-slaying Van Helsing. Both give career-defining performances.

1959:

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Director Terence Fisher

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Conan Doyle – Hammer style. Cushing is outstanding as Sherlock and André Morell single-handedly rehabilitates Watson, previously either absent from screen adaptations or reduced to an amiable bumbler. Holmes purists may balk at some of the changes to the original text, but this remains among the finest adaptations of the oft-filmed tale.

1960:

The Brides of Dracula

Director Terence Fisher

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

No Christopher Lee in this first Dracula sequel, but it’s so good that you barely notice his absence. Cushing’s Van Helsing is back, this time taking on David Peel’s undead Baron Meinster. Memorable for two of Hammer’s finest moments: Freda Jackson coaxing a newly turned vampire from the grave and an agonised Van Helsing cleansing his own vampire bite with a red hot poker.

1961:

The Curse of the Werewolf

Director Terence Fisher

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Hammer’s only excursion into lycanthropy casts a young Oliver Reed as the tragic hero, a child of rape born on Christmas Day and doomed to become a wolf – thanks to some marvellous Roy Ashton makeup effects – every full moon.

1962:

The Phantom of the Opera

Director Terence Fisher

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Herbert Lom takes his turn behind the mask as the tortured anti-hero of Hammer’s take on the much-filmed Gaston Leroux novel. It lacks the gruesome details that we’d come to expect from Hammer at this stage – and what few there were suffered at the scissors of the British censors – but, as ever, it’s a unique take on a story that had previously been adapted everywhere from Mexico to China.

1963:

The Kiss of the Vampire

Director Don Sharp

The Kiss of the Vampire (1962)

Although it started life as Dracula III, this is the first of Hammer’s vampire films to dispense with Dracula, Van Helsing, Lee and Cushing. Noel Willman is the undead antagonist this time, Dr Ravna, whose cult of vampires prey on a stranded honeymooning couple, and Clifford Evans stands in for the absent Cushing as the vengeful vampire hunter Professor Zimmer.

1964:

The Gorgon

Director Terence Fisher

The Gorgon (1964)

A detour into Greek mythology for Hammer with the eponymous snake-haired creature – Hammer’s first female monster, not counting the various victims of Dracula’s bite – haunting the residents of the village of Vandorf. Lee and Cushing are among them.

1965:

Fanatic

Director Silvio Narizzano

Fanatic (1965)

As well as the gothics, Hammer made a string of psychological thrillers with horror overtones in the 1960s, this being one of the most entertaining thanks to Tallulah Bankhead’s extraordinary turn as a religious fanatic with evil designs on her son’s fiancée.

1966:

The Plague of the Zombies

Director John Gilling

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Much loved for its terrifying nightmare sequence, this was Hammer’s only zombie film, made two years before George A. Romero changed the genre forever with Night of the Living Dead. John Carson is the Cornish squire using Haitian voodoo to raise the recently deceased to work in his tin mine, André Morell his scientist nemesis and Jacqueline Pearce steals the show as the doomed Alice.

1967:

Quatermass and the Pit

Director Roy Ward Baker

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

The third and last of Hammer’s adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s television serials is far and away the best, an ambitious tale of ancient alien forces awakening in late 1960s London and reactivating a long-dormant race memory. The climactic scenes of the awakened Martian forces psychically cleansing their “hive” of outsiders is one of Hammer’s most chilling moments.

1968:

The Devil Rides Out

Director Terence Fisher

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The first of two Dennis Wheatley adaptations by Hammer, and by far the best. One of the company’s best all round in fact. Christopher Lee is mesmerising as occult expert the Duc de Richleau, who is trying to protect initiate Tanith (Nike Arrighi) from the clutches of Charles Gray’s scene-stealing Satanist Mocata.

1969:

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Director Terence Fisher

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Number five in Hammer’s Frankenstein series saw Cushing’s increasingly deranged scientist finally slipping over the edge into full-on madness, becoming more of a monster than anything he created in his lab (it’s Freddie Jones this time as a fellow scientist who has another man’s brain forcibly transplanted into his body). Possibly Cushing’s best performance in the role; certainly his most unnerving.

1970:

Taste the Blood of Dracula

Director Peter Sasdy

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

The best of the Dracula sequels, this one has Lee’s count revived by one of his disciples (Ralph Bates, who was being groomed to replace Lee when the latter demanded more money to return to the role) in a gruesome blood-drinking ceremony that results in his being battered to death by a trio of thrill-seeking Edwardian gentlemen. Dracula then sets out to take his revenge via their children.

1971:

Hands of the Ripper

Director Peter Sasdy

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

Hammer had explored the doings of that most enduring of Victorian monsters, Jack the Ripper, as early as 1949’s Room to Let and returned to Whitechapel twice in 1971. Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde features a female killer performing Ripper-style atrocities, but this is the better of the two, with an angelic Angharad Rees an unlikely culprit as the Ripper’s daughter, who occasionally picks up her father’s mantle as a result of seeing her mother killed at his hands.

1972:

Vampire Circus

Director Robert Young

Vampire Circus (1972)

Hammer had been experimenting with its vampires for a couple of years before this weird, often dreamlike, frequently savage variation that sees a small village visited by a seemingly innocuous travelling circus that turns out to be run by vampires seeking revenge for the villagers’ murder of their leader, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), years before.

1973:

The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Director Alan Gibson

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

The last hurrah for Hammer’s Dracula is a strange but entertaining affair with Lee’s count (it would be the last time he would ever play the role) – now disguised as a 1970s London property developer and protected by biker bodyguards – planning to wipe out the human race with a plague weapon he’s had scientists develop for him. His plan doesn’t make much sense (what would he feed on if his plan worked?), but Dracula as Bond villain certainly makes for an unusual twist on the established pattern.

1974:

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Director Terence Fisher

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Hammer’s best years end where they began, with Fisher back in the director’s seat and Cushing’s Frankenstein – now working as resident doctor in an insane asylum – tinkering in things that should best be left well alone. This time his loathsome – and utterly pointless – scheme involves trying to mate his new creature, a shambling, hirsute monstrosity played by David Prowse, with his mute assistant Angel (Madeline Smith).

The arrival of a new wave of contemporary-set, more gruesome horror films from the US (Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) provided a challenge that Hammer found hard to rise to. 1975 saw no releases from the company at all and in 1976 they made one last horror film, a disappointing Dennis Wheatley adaptation, To the Devil a Daughter, before temporarily bowing out altogether after a lacklustre remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979. A post-millennial revival has yielded a handful of interesting films, but none can hold a candle to those 18 years when the Hammer name promised an hour and a half of gory, sexy and inventive thrills.

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