The major movie studios turned away from producing their own fantastic-themed movies during the 1960s. While they made some (“The Time Machine” , “Fantastic Voyage” , and “2001 A Space Odyssey”,  were just some of the classics from the decade), these were exceptions rather than the rule. One problem was that all of the major studios contracted during the 1960s due to economic concerns, so there were simply fewer films produced. Another was that the market had been saturated in the 1950s and the returns on fantastic films greatly diminished, so it was much easier (and certainly less costly) to pick up and distribute films from smaller, independent companies. Another was that most of the major Hollywood genre directors from the 1950s (who had any clout) had moved on. George Pal tried mightily to secure funding for his features, but only managed to make a total of five films (mostly fantasies) during the 1960s. Jack Arnold (who had done so much for Universal a decade earlier) turned away from the fantastic to concentrate on sappy comedies and later, TV. And even American International, which had defined low budget sci-fi and horror a decade earlier, began to diversify and turned their attention to other genres such as beach movies, biker movies, and mindless comedies (though Roger Corman continued to produce higher quality horror films with Vincent Price).
But during the 1960s there remained one shining light of horror (and to a lesser degree sci-fi). It came from a small family run company across the Atlantic. Yes, if it wasn’t for Hammer Studios, the genre of fantastic films would have been a bleak cinematic desert.
Hammer Studios began making films in the late 1940s and turned out potboilers and comedies well into the 1950s. But the studio struck gold in 1955 when they adapted Nigel Kneale’s British TV epic “The Quatermass Experiment” into a blockbuster sci-fi film. The film was released in the US as “The Creeping Unknown” and was quite successful here as well. But while Hammer studio chief Michael Carreras invested in a few more sci-fi films (“Enemy from Space”  and “X-the Unknown ), he was looking for the next big thing. He noticed that the famous “Shock Theatre” package of Universal horror films from the 1930s and 40s had been released to American TV, and they were drawing amazing TV ratings. So he began producing updated, colorful versions of gothic horror. He knew that he had a built-in audience of kids that were ready for “horror mania.”
And Hammer delivered. From the blockbuster success of 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein”, until the company’s demise in the 1970s, Hammer was the world’s leading authority on horror. Their sumptuous use of Technicolor, opulent (though economical) production design, and emphasis on sex and violence were unprecedented. If you were young during the 1960s and you needed a fantastic cinematic fix, you went to a Hammer movie (I went countless times). Their style was so renowned that other film companies (including Amicus and Tigon) tried to imitate them with varying degrees of success. And American studios fought over the rights for Hammer films in order to distribute them in America. In fact during the 1960s, Columbia, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers all distributed Hammer films in America. Hammer was a success story that has never been equaled.
And though they varied in quality, some of their celluloid adventures have etched a permanent place in fantastic film history. So here is a look at four classic Hammer films that helped define a generation of horror.
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1. THE MUMMY (1959) – Director: Terence Fisher
In 1895 a British expedition comes to Egypt to explore the great pyramids. It is led by Sir Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), his brother Joseph (Raymond Huntley) and his son John (Peter Cushing). The trio is searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka. After several false starts, Sir Stephen believes that he has found the right site. John suffers a freak accident and breaks his leg and must remain at their camp. At the tomb entrance, Banning and his brother are confronted by Mehemet Akir (George Pastell) who warns them that they will incur a great curse if they proceed. Banning is determined and brushes Pastell away. In the tomb the explorer finds the scroll of life and while reading it, gives life to the mummified remains of Kharis (Christopher Lee), a priest of Ananka who secretly loved her. Banning goes mad and Pastell enters and removes the mummy and the scroll. Several years later in England, Pastell appears, and along with Kharis, is determined to make the Banning family pay for their desecration. However he is not aware that John’s wife (Yvonne Furneaux) looks exactly like Kharis’s long lost love.
Of their first three Universal remakes, Hammer’s “The Mummy” remains my favorite. It possesses a wonderful pace and its energy doesn’t wane for a second. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster weaves a smashing tale of conceited British adventurers who incur a terrible curse when they trespass on sacred ground and fail to heed George Pastell’s warning. The team led by Felix Alymer (as Cushing’s father), and Raymond Huntley (as Cushing’s uncle) are all proper British bluster and pomposity, and their arrogance costs them their lives. Only Cushing realizes that the curse is real, and his willingness to accept it allows him to live and destroy it. Cushing is great (as always), but the real star here is Christopher Lee as the lovelorn Kharis. He brings real complexity to the mummy. He’s not the slow moving, shuffling, rag-covered mummy of the 1940s. He’s an unstoppable physical force who will let nothing stand in his way of reclaiming his true love (Yvonne Furneaux). My favorite scene is when Lee pays his first visit to Cushing. He crashes through Cushing’s heavy wooden front doors as if they were paper, promptly strangles Huntley and then moves in to kill Cushing. Despite the archeologist’s best efforts (including shooting and ramming a fireplace poker through Lee), Cushing finds himself slowly being choked to death. He is only saved when Furneaux enters and screams. When Kharis sees the reincarnation of his love, he becomes helpless. Lee’s eyes are amazing. They immediately change from anger and rage and reveal his undying love for Furneaux. It is an incredible scene and a true indication of just how good an actor Lee is. Featuring a standout cast of supporting players (Pastell, Eddie Byrne, and the always wonderful Michael Ripper), “The Mummy” is a highpoint for Hammer horror. With this brilliant entry they could truly claim to be the world’s master of the fantastic.
Quotable Movie Line: "There’s something evil in there, Uncle Joe – I’ve felt it!”
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2. THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1962) – Director: Don Sharp
On their honeymoon in Central Europe, Gerald (Edward deSouza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel) run out of gasoline in their automobile. They stay at the local inn, but are invited by local millionaire Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) to attend a party at his house. Gerald has too much to drink and when he awakens the next day, he is told by Ravna’s son Carl (Barry Warren) that he came to the party alone! Gerald is flabbergasted and seeks the help of the idiosyncratic Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans). Zimmer reveals to Gerald that Marianne has been kidnapped by Ravna, and unless they act quickly, she will be indoctrinated into their cult of vampirism.
I saw “The Kiss of the Vampire” for the first time on NBC’s Tuesday Night at the Movies way back in the late 1960s and it was impossible to figure out. The censors at NBC butchered an amazing old time vampire tale into a group of scenes that made absolutely no sense. Finally, in the 1970s, I saw the film at a revival house and couldn’t believe how good it was. “Kiss of the Vampire” is an elegant, poetic vampire movie that really originates from the classic vampire movies from the 1930s and 40s. There is a shocking beginning and a slow buildup, followed by some brief shocks and a fast climax. Director Don Sharp and screenwriter Anthony Hinds take their time with all of the main characters (Hammer wouldn’t be this generous in all of their Dracula follow-ups) and this makes for an emotional payoff at the climax. It’s really satisfying to see Gerald and Marianne reunited at the end, while all the vampires are destroyed by their own kind (vampire bats). Another great image from the film is the decadent party that Ravna gives. All of his vampire guests wear grotesque masks which unknowingly reveal their true ugliness to everyone else. Rarely discussed when classic vampire movies are the topic, “The Kiss of the Vampire” is a great examination of evil and how it hides its disease-riddled form in a cloak of riches and refinements. It’s a stylish film that needs to be rediscovered by all Hammer film maniacs.
Quotable Movie Line: “The corruption of human beings by the devil can take many forms; some of them are so foul as to be beyond human belief. But because they are beyond belief does not mean that they don’t exist.”
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3. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968) – Director: Terence Fisher
In 1920’s England, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and his friend Rex van Ryn (Patrick Allen) are concerned about the welfare of their friend Simon (Patrick Mower). Upon arriving at his home, the duo finds Simon holding a party for a group of Satanists led by the powerful Mocata (Charles Gray). Simon and a young girl named Tanith (Nike Arrighi) are to be baptized into the cult the next day, but Rex and Richleau infiltrate the ceremony and rescue them both. After several attempts by Mocata to get Simon and Tanith back, Richleau takes everyone (except for Rex and Tanith) to the home of his brother and prepares to do battle with Mocata. The Count draws a pentacle on the floor and gathers everyone into it. They are assaulted all night by the evil minions of Mocata who fail to break the group’s resolve. But Mocata is unrelenting, and since he is unable get to any adult, he spirits away Richleau’s niece and prepares to sacrifice her to Satan. Now Richleau must seek out Mocata and outduel the devil worshipper.
1968 was a great year for fantastic films. You had many classic released including “Planet of the Apes”, “2001 A Space Odyssey”, “Night of the Living Dead” and this wonderful cinematic epic on the eternal battle between good and evil. “The Devil Rides Out” is one of Hammer’s most mature films on the topic of malevolence and how the trappings of wealth and power can be used as a tool for corruption. Here evil isn’t a monstrous creature, or an undying entity that can only be defeated by one strong hero. It is a creeping malaise that comes in the shape of a society that thinks itself above everyone else. Evil can only be beaten when good people stand up to it as a unified force and shine the indomitable light of God on it. Richleau gladly takes on Mocata, but he knows that he needs help to save Simon, so he calls in his brother and Rex to assist him. There is much to like in this film. Setting the film in the 1920s was a stroke of genius by screenwriter Richard Matheson. He neatly aligns Richleau’s belief in God with the tools of the industrial revolution (biplanes, automobiles, telephones) while Mocata’s style of devil worship is anchored in the old, dark rituals of the past. There are great scenes of confrontation including when Simon and Tanith are whisked away by Rex and Richleau just as they are being indoctrinated into Mocata’s society, the scene where Mocata summons up a demon to destroy Richleau and Rex, and the final battle where Richleau and his family must defend themselves against Mocata’s demons with only their sacred circle to protect them. One of the joys of this film is seeing Christopher Lee fight for good. He’s marvelous as a man of action; forthright, brave and always sure of himself. He cuts quite a figure as the Duc and I always wanted to see more films with him as the hero. But the film was a huge flop in America which put the kibosh on that. He could have been a post-modern Van Helsing, traveling the world and cleansing it of all evil. As it stands, “The Devil’s Bride” is a highpoint for Hammer films during the 1960s. The production team came together to make a classic film that is still held in high regard more than 40 years later.
Quotable Movie Line: “Why it’s the Goat of Mendes – the devil himself!”
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4. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) – Director: Terence Fisher
After beheading a famous scientist, Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) returns to his laboratory to resume his ghoulish experiments. He surprises a burglar who is horrified at the Baron’s gruesome collection of body parts. He flees and returns with the police who are too late to apprehend Frankenstein. The Baron moves into a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson). After first gaining her trust, the Baron blackmails her and her boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) into helping him free brilliant scientist Dr. Brandt (George Pravda) from the asylum Karl works at in order to obtain his advanced formula for transplantation. But Brandt suffers a fatal heart attack and Frankenstein transplants his brain into that of Professor Richter (Freddie Jones). Brandt is furious at what Frankenstein has done to him. The scientist is accidentally injured by Anna but manages to escape so he can see his wife. Frankenstein kills Anna for her action and tries to get Brandt back. But Brandt has laid out a perfect trap for the obsessed Frankenstein at his home and eagerly prepares for the Baron’s visit.
This is another great film about evil’s ability to corrupt. After 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein”, the three subsequent sequels (“The Revenge of Frankenstein” , “The Evil of Frankenstein” , and “Frankenstein Created Woman” ) all softened the character of Dr. Frankenstein, in an effort to more align the audience’s sympathies with him. But that attempt was reversed with this effort. There is no doubt in this film who the true monster is. The film starts with the good doctor performing a bit of radical surgery by beheading a brilliant scientist and then attempting to kill a burglar who mistakenly saw the spoils of the crime. Frankenstein is so obsessed with proving his theory that he is not above corrupting other innocents to help him get his way. He’s an excellent reader of character and gets vulnerable Veronica Carlson and beau Simon Ward to join him by first ingratiating himself and then blackmailing them when they are at their weakest and neediest. And in the height of arrogance, he disposes of them when they are no longer useful. The great irony, of course, is that by his actions, Frankenstein becomes a greater monster than any of his creations. Peter Cushing has never been better. His Frankenstein is a magnetic and powerfully evil personality and Cushing is brilliant (Frankenstein thinks so little of others that he brutally rapes Carlson when the mood strikes him). It’s a great shame that Hammer did not end the series here and instead fumbled along with a couple of other entries over the next few years (“The Horror of Frankenstein”  with Ralph Bates as the good doctor, and “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell”  with Cushing playing Frankenstein one last time). “Frankenstein Must be Destroyed” is a great example of evil and corruption, and a standout example of 1960s horror.
Quotable Movie Line: “I fancy that I am the spider, and you are the fly, Frankenstein.”
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Of course these are just four examples of superior Hammer horror ( see below for more entries). And now that Hammer films are producing movies once again, perhaps filmgoers can look forward to a new generation of great Hammer horror. That would be fantastic.
Additional Quality Hammer Films
1. The Quatermass Experiment (1955)
2. X- the Unknown (1957)
3. Enemy from Space (Quatermass 2) (1957)
4. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
5. The Horror of Dracula (1958)
6. The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)
7. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
8. The Brides of Dracula (1960)
9. These are the Damned (1961/64)
10. The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
11. The Reptile (1966)
12. Quatermass and the Pit (1968)
13. The Vampire Lovers (1971)
14. Vampire Circus (1971)
15. Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1972)
Del Vecchio, Deborah and Johnson, Tom. Peter Cushing – The Gentle Man of Horror and His 91 Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1992.
Jensen, Paul M. The Men Who Made the Monsters. New York, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Meikle, Denis. A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc. 2009.
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s (Volume 2). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.
Smith, Gary A. Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956-1976. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 2000.