Hammer Horror History

Christopher Lee in Dracula

The story of horror at Hammer…

It all began in May 1957 when Hammer, a small outfit which made unexceptional features and documentaries, released The Curse of Frankenstein.

It grossed 70 times its original production £65,000 production cost and signalled the break through for Peter Cushing, who played the amoral scientist Baron Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee whose make-up for the monster took three hours to apply. Although the Baron was beheaded in the first film, Hammer brought him back for a sequel with a brief “get out” at the start to show how he’d cheated the guillotine.

Realising the potential of horror, Hammer swiftly introduced another classic character. Directed by Terence Fisher, Dracula introduced Christopher Lee as the vampiric embodiment of evil – ‘The terrifying lover who died… yet LIVED! Cushing played the Count’s frail but dogged enemy Van Helsing. Lee brought a brooding menace to Dracula but critics accused the film of being too extreme. The public, however, loved it.

After that, Dracula films flowed like blood – there were six in all, the same number as Frankenstein – and the Count had a permanent coffin set up at Hammer’s Bray Studios.

Brides of Dracula (1960) disappointingly, did not feature Lee although it was equally atmospheric and stylish, and quite erotic for the early 1960s. Lee returned in 1965 for Dracula – Prince of Darkness, which was actually the proper sequel to Dracula. Although Cushing was missing, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir of Quatermass fame, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Thorley Walters provided capable support.

The story concerned two English couples blundering around the Carpathians who were ‘invited’ to Castle Dracula to be terrorised by Lee, who didn’t have a single line of dialogue. In the next film, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Dracula was enraged by a Monsignor who tried to perform an exorcism on his castle. Vengenace involved taking the priest’s niece (Veronica Carlson in her Hammer debut) for his bride. By the time of Lee’s final appearance in the Satanic Rites of Dracula Dracula in 1973, even the Count had become bored with immortality. His attempt to steal away Van Helsing’s grand daughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) before destroying the world with a new strain of bubonic plague thus ending his supply of blood was an apocalyptic form of suicide. The final confrontation between Van Helsing and the Count took place as the clock struck midnight.

Time was up for Dracula after which Lee declared: “I will not play that character anymore… it is now part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played…” In order to take advantage of the same set, cast and crew and to save time on developing new stories, many Hammer films were made back-to-back – Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk shared many of the same cast and crew; the same set was used for the destruction of Dracula and for Rasputin’s fall from a window to an icy grave.

So that audiences wouldn’t notice, films were then released on double bills with different halves of other back-to-back pairings. Cunning or what? Hammer in the 1960s, was at its imaginative zenith thanks to Frankenstein, Dracula and other gothic mini-masterpieces. But as the decade wore on, its films became increasingly formulaic and included more psychological thrillers. As box-office receipts fell, more emphasis was placed on sex. Hazel Court and Barbara Shelley, who’d offered allure without revealing all, gave way to ‘sex kittens’ whose chief purpose was to get their kit off as often as possible.

Hammer were masters of publicity and loved to show off fresh female talent at showbiz bashes. The posters too were impressive works of art with blood curdling slogans such as “drink a pint of blood a day” which was the strapline which accompanied Taste the Blood of Dracula and the Curse of Frankenstein’s boast that “no-one who saw it lived to describe it”.

It didn’t always have the necessary effect on critics. The reporter from the Daily Worker said of Curse of Frankenstein: “I came away revolted and outraged, this film disgusts the mind and repels the senses.” A third, somewhat lesser, series in the Hammer back catalogue was the Mummy films, starting with 1957’s The Mummy.

Hammer again plundered the Universal back catalogue to produce a stylish job. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb followed in 1964 and The Mummy’s Shroud in 1967. Of Hammer’s other horror films, many played on well known stories, often with a twist. In 1971, Peter Sasdy directed Hands of the Ripper, a straightforward shocker concerning the daughter of Jack the Ripper (Angharad Rees) and the possibility that she had inherited his less pleasing characteristics. An idealistic psychiatrist (Eric Porter) believed he could cure her, but found himself out of his depth.

In 1971’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a variation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Ralph Bates transformed into Martine Beswicke after experimenting with female hormones while searching for a youth potion. Hammer also produced varied takes on literary classics from Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing as an icy Sherlock Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, to the Phantom of the Opera with Herbert Lom as the betrayed and lovelorn Phantom. Perhaps best of all was Rasputin: the Mad Monk, in which Lee led Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer (all from Dracula, Prince of Darkness) in an historically inaccurate romp through the corrupt Czarist court.

By the 1970s audiences were being offered a greater variety of shocks and Hammer’s output had become mundane compared to Hollywood, which was producing the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. In 1976 Hammer produced its last horror film – To The Devil A Daughter. Richard Widmark played an American writer trying to prevent Christopher Lee’s priest from impregnating a 16 year-old nun (Nastassia Kinski, daughter of Klaus) with the child of Satan.

The company which had won a Queen’s Award for Industry for exports in 1968 was out of the film business, part of a wider decline in the British film industry which in 1975 reached a new low when it did not produce a single feature film. Hammer’s last film, the Lady Vanishes, starring Elliot Gould, was a dismal re-working of Hitchcock’s earlier version.