Why this might not seem so easy
Although it’s not entirely correct to say that the critical reputation of the London-based Hammer film studio was always low, it’s true that until the 1970s, very few people took them seriously. A typical reaction to The Curse of Frankenstein upon its release in 1957, was that of Caroline Lejeune, the critic of The Observer, who described it as “among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have encountered”. The box office boomed but the critics either smiled indulgently or got out the vomit bag.
Beginning with David Pirie’s book A Heritage of Horror in 1973, ‘Hammer horror’ received serious critical examination and it soon became apparent that they represented something of a secret history of British cinema running alongside the respectable face of Hitchcock, Ealing comedies and ‘kitchen sink’ drama. Their influence on other filmmakers is just about incalculable, both in their home country and abroad – the American ‘movie brats’ were massive fans. The cult remains strong to this day, but there are more than a hundred golden age Hammer films to go through, and for the casual viewer there can be the feeling that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Hammer are producing films again today, but for the purposes of getting to grips with the Hammer phenomenon it’s better to concentrate your viewing efforts on the studio’s golden age, which ran from 1955 to 1976. Their most recent productions have plenty of merits of their own though, and one of them, The Quiet Ones, numbered among the most underrated films of 2014.
The best place to start – The Brides of Dracula
It would be quite possible to tackle Hammer films by beginning at the beginning with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and their classic gothic trilogy – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) – then working forward chronologically. However, this has the drawback of starting with films which, while frequently brilliant, have elements which could be off-putting for first-timers: Brian Donlevy’s idiosyncratic performance as Professor Quatermass, for example; the slightly meandering middle section of Dracula; the mannered opening section of The Curse of Frankenstein; the pace-deadening double flashbacks in The Mummy.
For a completely comfortable first dip, newcomers should try 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, a horror folk tale in delirious Technicolor, which found the majority of Hammer’s regular team working at the very peak of their game. There is a slight peculiarity in that, despite the title, Count Dracula doesn’t appear and nor does the awesome Christopher Lee (star of the 1958 Dracula) – according to Jonathan Rigby’s English Gothic, Hammer never seem to have considered casting him again. But Peter Cushing is present and correct as Dr Van Helsing, this time battling an outbreak of vampirism in a school for young ladies caused by the insufficiently chained-up Baron Meinster.
The pace is headlong, the acting excellent – Martita Hunt stands out as the baron’s mother – and the visual style is simply thrilling, with rich colours that bear comparison with the heightened world of Powell and Pressburger’s films. As ever, Cushing gives his all, taking the whole thing seriously and excelling himself towards the end when he has to face his own greatest fear. The director Terence Fisher made a large number of films for Hammer, but this may well be his very best.
Alternatively, you could go forward into the late 1960s and watch Christopher Lee at his most magisterial in The Devil Rides Out (1968), another great work by Terence Fisher. It’s a rich brew indeed, consisting of Lee battling a group of dastardly Satanists led by the peerless Charles Gray. Some slightly rushed effects work aside, it’s executed with devilish brilliance in all departments, and Richard Matheson’s script from Dennis Wheatley’s novel is one of the best that Hammer ever had to work with.
What to watch next
If you enjoy either of those two classics then you will have a good idea of the classic Hammer style and can go back and enjoy the groundbreaking early stuff. For a good example of their work in black and white, combining science fiction with horror, Val Guest’s Quatermass 2 (1957) is a terrific paranoid thriller adapted from the TV series by Nigel Kneale. Equally fine is their 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which emphasises the horror elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel and provides excellent opportunities for Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and André Morell as, for my money, the definitive Dr Watson.
Hammer made a range of films outside the horror genre and some of them are excellent, particularly the unusual thriller Cash on Demand, reteaming Cushing and Morell, and a gritty war film, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), directed by Val Guest. Their series of psychological thrillers have also dated fairly well, mostly written by Jimmy Sangster and influenced by the success of Psycho (1960) and the French classic Les Diaboliques (1955). Taste of Fear (1961) was the first and perhaps the best, but I have a lot of time for Paranoiac from 1963, which has fine studies in derangement from Oliver Reed and Sheila Burrell.
Of the later films, The Plague of the Zombies (1966) is one of the best, a Cornish-set gothic which has memorable shock moments. There is also much to be said for a couple of very quirky 1970s entries: Twins of Evil (1971), set amid witch-burning fanatics, and Vampire Circus (1972), full of astonishing moments of visual magic in among the by-then customary sex and violence.
There are, of course, plenty of sequels to contend with – a whole slew of Frankenstein and Dracula films featuring Lee and Cushing but not always together. Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) are both very safe bets, but – in a less traditional vein – Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) is enormous fun, with Dracula and Van Helsing battling it out in not-entirely-swinging London.
Where not to start
Although there are interesting aspects to some of Hammer’s very early films, a lot of them suffer from painfully low budgets and wooden performances from imported American actors. The days when The Adventures of P.C. 49 (1949) could be shown on BBC Saturday morning television as acceptable filler for the kids are way behind us.
Your Hammer fandom also risks getting off to a shaky start with problematic, compromised films such as The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), which promises much but doesn’t deliver, or The Old Dark House (1963), a flat remake of the 1932 film of the same name, produced in association with William Castle. Equally, their film of The Phantom of the Opera (1962), while fascinating to fans of Terence Fisher for his attempt at romantic melodrama, is likely to look like an unsatisfying take on a classic tale with an obvious paucity of horror.
There are also some very dubious sequels to their big hits. Caution is advised against exploration of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) by the unwary, and not even Cushing or Lee can save The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) or Scars of Dracula (1970). But there are other failures, such as Demons of the Mind (1972) and To the Devil a Daughter (1976), which only become more interesting the more familiar you get with Hammer.
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