British cinema wouldn’t be the same without Hammer Films. Though the company was making films well before it became associated with horror cinema, Hammer redefined the genre for British audiences and cemented its distinctly English take on the gothic.
Functioning from their lot at Bray Studios, as well as several other British studios, including Elstree, William Hinds’ and Jim Carreras’ company turned the Home Counties into a Xanadu of horror locations. Stately homes, country lanes, eerie parks and even London high streets became the backdrop for their colourful brand of horror.
The darkest corners of Eastern Europe became denoted by pinewood forests in Slough, castles lived in by Dr Frankenstein and Count Dracula looked suspiciously alike, and quiet parts of the Thames found their way into all manner of unnerving scenarios.
With Halloween soon approaching and the hours drawing in, here are some of the key locations used by Hammer for a whole variety of horror films.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Black Park from The Brides of Dracula (1960)
One staple location for Hammer was Black Park in Buckinghamshire. Usefully close to Pinewood Studios, the area’s forest and lake are some of the most filmed in the whole of Britain. Hammer often used the location as a stand-in for European locales, especially Transylvania in its various Dracula films. Terence Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula (1960) is a good example, as its opening shots show.
One shot from the film shows a carriage hurtling along. The shot is taken from the west side of the lake, marked by the overflow water on the left hand side. However, as this part now has a gravel path running along it, slightly further along from the original spot is closer to how it looked.
The house from The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Dennis Wheatley’s country-house occultism was a perfect match for Hammer. The first of the studio’s two Wheatley adaptations, Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1968), is filled with typical British filming locations, covering a number of manors and country houses that have featured prominently in both film and television. The most distinctive is the use of the Edgwarebury Hotel, now simply known as The Manor, in Elstree. The house in the film, a tale of Satan-worshipping in the shires, is the home of Richard (Paul Eddington) and Marie (Sarah Lawson), friends of the Duc de Richleau, Christopher Lee’s aristocratic occult specialist.
We see the location numerous times throughout the film, often when characters arrive in their variety of vintage cars. As seen from this angle, the main front garden of the mansion is now taken over by the hotel’s car park.
Many shots feature the house at an angle in order to show the arrivals. The film’s centrepiece battle between good and evil occurs in a studio recreation of the building’s main room. The location has also played a part in titles as diverse as Robert Hamer’s School for Scoundrels (1960) and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Kubrick himself lived only a road away.
With so many films made at Elstree Studios over the years, the town today commemorates an endless array of screen entertainment. Getting off at the station, you’re greeted by stars on the pavement celebrating everyone from Harrison Ford to Reg Varney. Along the Elstree Heritage Trail through the town, many plaques celebrate directors and actors. Naturally, there’s one celebrating Hammer’s work in the studio, as well as another in tribute to Christopher Lee himself.
The church from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Roy Ward Baker’s haunting adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s celebrated screenplay was chiefly a studio affair. With its mystery predominantly surrounding the fictional tube station of Hobb’s End – where a Martian spacecraft is unearthed, leading to increasingly strange and horrifying events – very little location work was required. However, Baker chose one particularly effective location for a small but chilling moment.
The night-time sequence begins as Sladden (Duncan Lamont) is driven mad by the power of the craft. He stumbles through the streets, seemingly directed by the alien intelligence. He finds himself in a graveyard, clutching the gravestones as he tries to escape the power. The church is St Nicholas’, a beautiful and historic building near the river in Chiswick, London. Sladden eventually climbs beyond the church and through a gap in the fence. The graves have slightly altered but several remain, marking the spot exactly where Baker directed the scene.
Hearing of Sladden’s madness and his sanctuary in the church, Quatermass (Andrew Kier) and Barbara (Barbara Shelley) make their way there. They are seen wandering down the path known as Powell’s Walk before the camera pans and follows them into one of the church’s entrances.
The flat from Straight on till Morning (1972)
Hammer’s non-period thrillers used a range of settings to tell their tricksy tales of intrigue and murder. By the 1970s, these films particularly looked to London as a setting – a city still reeling from the counterculture revolution. The films provide vivid documentation of the capital, simultaneously psychedelic, eerie and grimy. Peter Collinson’s Straight on till Morning (1972) is a perfect example of this.
The film follows the debonair yet troubled Peter (Shane Briant), who seems to be just a little too perfect, especially in the eyes of the naive Brenda (Rita Tushingham) who can’t help but fall under his spell. Their first real meeting takes place at Peter’s flat, which is in the beautiful mews of Archery Close near Marble Arch. As Brenda returns Peter’s missing dog, Collinson films the road from high above the mews.
At the film’s end, the last thing the viewer sees is the flat and road. Collinson begins the final shot with the flat itself, which sits cramped in the corner of the mews. Today, the flat’s beautiful stained-glass window has been replaced, but the location retains the atmosphere of the film.
The zoom concludes with the film’s title on screen before the credits begin. The shot is taken of the mews from its narrow entranceway.
Perhaps the most important location in British horror, Oakley Court in between Windsor and Maidenhead has a rich and varied screen life. Adjacent to Bray Studios, Hammer’s chief centre of filming for many years, the gothic mansion made a perfect location for a whole host of films. The building has changed little since it started its long relationship with cinema, though it’s now a luxury hotel. Take this shot from Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) showing the building at night.
Oakley Court didn’t just meet the requirements for period pieces. It made a perfect (if unusual) setting for some of Hammer’s more modern and urbane horrors. In Freddie Francis’s Nightmare (1964), for example, the same building is used for the film’s eerie girls’ school, with added snow for extra chilly menace.
The building has featured in so many of Hammer’s films that, along with acting regulars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, it becomes a comforting presence. The entrance of the building is seen in The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing in the doorway. It exudes a sense of fireside pleasures; of gothic horror for crisp autumn nights.
Even when Hammer’s films have more distinctive settings, Oakley Court reappears. In John Gilling’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966), for example, although the action is set in Cornwall, the building still makes an appearance. The building may since have become more famous as the location for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), but it will always epitomise Hammer.
Being so close by, it felt wrong to visit Oakley Court without visiting Bray Studios itself. The evocative, whitewashed walls of Down Place have long denoted British horror, with several Hammer films even using the house’s exteriors. Hammer was based there until 1966 and made the vast majority of their classic films in the studio. Bray has undergone a great change in recent years, with a vast project turning it back into a huge film studio. The restoration and building work is ongoing.
Although the area is now littered with vast new shooting stages, workshops and all of the usual buildings of a big film studio, the oldest of the stages is still standing. Studio 3 was originally attached to Down Place and was where a number of Hammer’s films were shot. Today, the stage is in the process of being separated from the house so it can be used once again.
Down Place is itself being restored with loving care. The famous name of the studio emblazoned on the house’s exterior has recently been painstakingly repainted, using original three-dimensional photographs of the original as a guide to recreate it precisely.
Inside Down Place, the work continues. Every aspect of the original property is being rebuilt, including the famous screening room that once saw many a Hammer cast and crew watching their finished product. The original door is still there, bringing forth images of Jim Carreras leading a troupe of Hammer stars in to watch the latest horror.
To see Bray as a fully functioning studio again, filled with the clash and clamour of film production, would be more than a worthy tribute to the place’s history. But, for such care and attention to be paid to the house, which, for so many, is the face of British horror – that is truly a noble endeavour. For fans, this idyllic stretch of the Thames is the dark heart of horror and one of the most important horror film locations in the world, then and now.
Thanks to Linda Teare and Pat O’Connor.