By and large I am very happy with my lot and totally at peace with myself. Consequently, there are very very very few things in life that make me wish I could have been born into a different era with a different set of opportunities. However, when asked that teasing hypothetical ‘dinner party’ question – “…if you could be anyone else or do anything else, what would that be?” – one of the answers I always give is…I would have loved to have starred in one of the original Hammer Horror movies! And I would!
Halloween is just one week away – and a fascinating series of documentaries by Mark Gatiss is currently being screened on UK TV (which I am avidly watching). Hence, my thoughts have recently returned to all things Hammer…and thus I thought I’d share my love of Hammer Horror with all of you now.
Hammer Films produced an enviably stylish and ground-breaking series of Horror movies on decidedly low budgets throughout the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s at minor British film studios in Bray and Elstree – in the genteel suburban stockbroker belt. Yet Hammer’s stylistic template spread rapidly around the world – Wes Craven and Dario Argento (both of whom will need no introduction to Horror movie fans) both cite Hammer as a direct influence on their own work.
Much has been written (and still is being written) about the history of Hammer (and its continuing cultural influence) so I do not propose to add to that here. Rather, I thought I’d share a few of my own thoughts and memories concerning this legendary film company and its colourful output that ultimately defined the 1970s.
As a kid growing up in the 1970s, Hammer was just about the best thing on TV – ever! The trick was to stay up late and watch one of the Horror double bills – usually Hammer classics such as Scars Of Dracula, Taste The Blood Of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Dracula AD 1972 (…well, you get the idea!) Then, you could meet up in the playground to see if your mates had seen it too – and gleefully illicitly discuss all the gory bits (although, unlike the unpleasantly gross slasher flicks of today, Hammer’s gory bits were generally quite obvious buckets of bright red poster paint thrown over decapitated polystyrene heads or plastic limbs…and therefore more laughable than outright scary). Another popular topic of schoolboy conversation was the number of bare breasts you had seen – ‘Hammer Glamour’ being a key component of the Hammer brand’s roaring success. (This was the 1970s remember – there was no such thing as the internet back then, people! Women baring their breasts – and in colour too!! – was, for us, monumental!)
Hammer Glamour! A topic worthy of a book all on its own. Oh look! It’s got one! Go to Amazon and type in ‘Hammer Glamour’ under ‘Books’ and it will appear in all of its glory (Hammer Glamour by Marcus Hearn). Amazingly, I don’t yet own a copy – but it is certainly top of my Xmas wish list this year (…if Santa happens to be reading my blog?…and why wouldn’t he?!)
Hammer became known for its ‘scream queens’ – a bevy of beauties who paraded through Hammer’s pics being very very naughty and yet very very nice. Ingrid Pitt and Barbara Shelley were arguably the best known (and Ingrid Pitt – Countess Dracula herself – was always my personal favourite). However, a whole catalogue of attractive actresses can be spotted adding glamour within Hammer productions – Joanna Lumley, Stephanie Beacham, Raquel Welch, Caroline Munro as well as the Playboy Playmate twins Mary and Margaret Collinson (whose performance in Twins Of Evil is a true Hammer classic) and Yutte Stensgaard (who is shown on the cover of Hammer Glamour). These Hammer starlets retain a following to this day – hence Mr Hearn’s book!
As the 70s progressed, Hammer became increasingly known for the soft porn aspects of its movies – with films such as Lust For A Vampire, Vampire Lovers and Twins Of Evil (the infamous ‘Karnstein trilogy’) pushing the envelope somewhat (and promising something a little more than just pointy plastic teeth).
However, the ‘golden age’ of Hammer must surely be the 1960s Dracula series – when colour film and the performances of Christopher Lee defined ‘the vampire’ (and the rules governing them; garlic, sunlight, running water, crucifixes, stake through the heart etc) for an entire generation. And, I must say, Hammer did it in an infinitely superior guise than the anodyne one-dimensional ‘High School Musical meets MTV video’ idea of vampires that now seems to pervade the genre in the early 21st century. Hammer had true Gothic melodrama – and Hammer had it in spades.
I own all of the Lee era Dracula films on DVD (except The Satanic Rites Of Dracula – which seems to be unfortunately discontinued) and I still watch them on occasion. They never get stale. My absolute favourite is the 1966 movie Dracula: Prince Of Darkness. Lee turns in a defining performance as The Count. Every cliché in the book is there – lost travellers ending up at The Castle (despite being warned by the locals never to go there); a thundering black horsedrawn carriage with no-one at the helm that transports its occupants directly to the castle; the sinister castle butler, Klove. Classic! I briefly taught Drama to a class of 16-18 year olds and showed them Dracula: Prince Of Darkness. They had never seen anything like it…and they absolutely loved it; they took the characters and invented their own scenarios and created new scenes for them – and brilliantly pastiched the melodrama. It captured their imaginations in a way much of the other material on their Drama course had entirely failed to do.
If you don’t know Hammer…then Dracula: Prince Of Darkness is the place I would suggest you begin. Other favourites of mine are: Twins Of Evil, Taste The Blood Of Dracula and Dracula AD 1972. But they are all classics in their own way.
So, I shall close by saying once again…..fangs for the mammaries, Hammer! Er…I mean, of course…fangs for the memories!