Hammer Horror Heroes – By Philip Smolen

As a kid in the 1960s, it was a total delight to go to a Saturday matinee and see a Hammer horror double feature. I had caught some of the original Hammer films on “Chiller Theater” and “Creature Features” and really got into them. So I always made sure to see the new releases on a weekend matinee, especially if they starred Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (to me it seemed to be that extra special touch). I knew that Hammer films usually featured some good scares, some good makeup, a great monster or villain and some excellent feminine cleavage (a very important ingredient for a growing boy)! It didn’t matter if it was Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy or some other gothic terror, Hammer films usually gave me the emotional release that I craved.

But as I grew older and wrestled with some of the more troublesome adolescent difficulties that arose in my life, I started paying more attention to the heroes that populated a Hammer film rather than the monsters. Maybe I was looking for a role model, or unconsciously searching for a better way to face my problems, but these monster fighters moved front and center into my thoughts. I was awed by their acts of daring, amazed at their total commitment to fighting evil and thrilled by their ingenious ways of destroying the monster. They were human and had their foibles, but they knew that they were the only person capable of saving the earth.

So here’s a look at five of my favorite classic Hammer horror heroes (in ascending order of popularity). Some were fortunate to appear in multiple films, while others made only one appearance. But all of them possessed that special monster fighting ability that is sorely lacking in many of the protagonists in modern day fantasy films.

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5. Hero: Captain Kronos (Horst Janson)

Film: Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, 1972/1974 (Director: Brian Clemens)

Antagonist: Vampires

In this fun early 70s vampire film, the swordsman Captain Kronos and his hunchback assistant Grost (John Cater) have come to a small village to help his friend Dr. Marcus (John Carson) solve the deaths of some young women. It turns out that that Lady Durwood (Wanda Ventham) has been draining the blood from these young girls in order to raise her husband Lord Durward from the dead. With the help of his deformed friend, Kronos is able to destroy Durward and lift the vampirific curse that haunts the village while still having time to romance a local village girl named Carla (Caroline Monroe).

In the early 1970s, Hammer studios were hemorrhaging money and cinematic clout. Many of the horror/thriller films they had produced were being ignored by the movie going public. As a result Hammer chairman Michael Carreras tried to infuse his films with new blood. For this cinematic variation of the vampire theme, Carreras turned to famed British TV writer Brian Clemens (who had created the smash spy show “The Avengers”). Clemens came up with a delightful combination of vampires and swordplay. This is a terrific horror film, and its life and vitality were quite unusual for a 1970s Hammer film. Clemens plays with many of the traditional vampire myths and treats the condition as a virulent disease that robs people, not only of their blood, but also of their youth.

To me, Kronos is a great Hammer hero, because he is the exact opposite of many of them. He is not a scholar and doesn’t possess great intelligence. He is simply a mercenary (with a healthy sex drive!), but with a strong sense of obligation and duty. The scene that exemplifies this best is when Kronos and Grost have to destroy Dr. Marcus, who has become a vampire. They try various methods and nothing works. But Kronos refuses to give up, because he simply must release his friend from the evil that has seized him. After finally finding out that a sword will destroy vampires, Kronos celebrates, because he now knows that he has found a way to release the village from its curse.

“Captain Kronos” was intended to be the first in a series of films (or TV shows) for the adventurer, but its poor box office results doomed any more productions. That’s a shame, because I think that Kronos could have developed into a legendary Hammer horror hero.

QUOTABLE KRONOS MOVIE LINE: “What he doesn’t know about vampirism wouldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece!”

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4. Hero: Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell)

Film: The Plague of the Zombies, 1966 (Director: John Gilling)

Antagonist: Zombies

Renowned physician Sir James Forbes receives a distressing letter from one of his best pupils, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). It seems that there has been a rash of recent deaths in his village that he cannot explain. He begs Sir James for his help, so Sir James and his lovely daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) travel to Cornwall. There, they find the small village held in a grip of fear. Sir James first insists on performing an autopsy on a recent victim, but since the village Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) refuses to allow this, Sir James and Peter decide to exhume a corpse. To their great shock they find the grave empty. Evidence leads Sir James to suspect that Squire Hamilton has been practicing voodoo on the recently dead in order to provide slave labor for his tin mine (well, that would cut down on the workman’s compensation claims). And now it seems that the evil Hamilton has set his sights on turning the lovely Sylvia into one of his undead minions!

“The Plague of the Zombies” is a classic horror film from Hammer and it features a great performance by Andre Morrell as Sir James Forbes. Sir James is a wonderful character and screenwriter Peter Byran imbues him with an insatiable scientific curiosity, which is only modestly aroused when he initially receives the letter from Peter. He still would much prefer to go on his planned fishing vacation rather than go to Cornwall. But when Sir James arrives and sees the fear that’s gripping the town, his inquisitiveness is peaked, and he is determined to find the cause of the mysterious deaths. He even breaks the law (grave robbing, breaking into Squire Hamilton’s home) in order to get the key information he needs to uncover the true hideous nature of Squire Hamilton’s evil plan. His moral outrage and disgust over discovering what Hamilton is doing is also great fun to watch. Sir James is so morally bound to do the right thing that he even convinces one of the local police officers (a great Michael Ripper) to break the law and keep Sir James’s discoveries a secret so Hamilton won’t find out. “Plague of the Zombies” was a high point for Hammer Films in the 1960s and just like “Captain Kronos” it’s a great shame that more films weren’t made with Sir James Forbes as the lead. His character was strong enough to anchor an entire horror franchise.

QUOTABLE SIR JAMES FORBES MOVIE LINE: “I find all kinds of witchcraft slightly nauseating and I find this absolutely disgusting!”

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3. HERO: Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee)

FILM: The Devil Rides Out, 1967/1968 (Director: Terence Fisher)

ANTAGONIST: Mocata the Devil Worshipper

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.

“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. In this movie 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 (hmm, parallels anyone?). 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. And Christopher Lee is the strong leader who is capable of directing the good fight. Lee is marvelous as a man of action; forthright, brave and always sure of himself. He cuts quite a figure as the Duc and without his bold leadership Mocata and his minions would surely take Simon and Tanith’s soul. But the Duc is able to marshal the right people to fight the evil. He’s a great general, always ready to lead his noble troops into battle, but aware that without his friends, he stands little chance of winning. “The Devil’s Bride” is a highpoint for Hammer films during the 1960s. Every aspect of the production came together to make a classic film that is still held in high regard over 45 years later.

QUOTABLE DUC de RICHLEAU MOVIE LINE: “Why it’s the Goat of Mendes – the devil himself!”

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2. HERO: Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing)

FILM: The Brides of Dracula, 1960 (Director: Terrence Fisher)
(plus Horror of Dracula, 1958, Dracula AD 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973/1979 and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, 1974)

ANTAGONIST: Vampires!

Teacher Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to a prestigious girl’s school in Badelstein. When she is stranded at a local inn, the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) offers Marianne shelter at her castle. While there, she frees the Baroness’s son (David Peel) from the chains that bind him, not knowing that she has freed a vampire! When Marianne finds the Baroness dead later that night, she runs away from the castle and is rescued the next day by Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Van Helsing befriends Marianne and he brings her to her school. While in the area, Van Helsing hears of an outbreak of vampirism. He is determined to destroy the undead creatures, but is horrified to discover that the outbreak of vampirism can be traced back to Marianne’s school. It seems that the wonderful young man that Marianne is engaged to is none other than the Baroness’s vampire son!

Any listing of great Hammer Horror Heroes simply must include the brave vampire fighter Dr. Van Helsing. He is one of the most dedicated and pragmatic heroes in horror movie history, and a big reason for this character’s success are Peter Cushing’s brilliant performances. While Hammer’s three Dracula movies in the 1970s were disappointing, their first two cinematic chapters were terrific, with my favorite being 1960’s “Brides of Dracula.” All of Van Helsing’s great qualities are on display here; his purity, his self-sacrifice, his belief that he is doing God’s work and his unending quest to find every available method available to destroy the unholy vampire cult. Nowhere are his qualities more obvious than in the scene where he awakens in the Windmill and realizes that he has been bitten by Baron Meinster and now faces an undead life. Knowing that time is running out, Van Helsing doesn’t despair or throw his hands up. He reacts like a clear thinking man of science and calmly burns out the wound in his neck. It’s a fabulous scene and Cushing’s facial expressions are great. Cushing was so good as the dedicated doctor that he returned to the role a total of five times! So while there have been other vampire hunters throughout cinematic history, in my mind, none will ever be better than Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing. He definitely gave you the most bang for your cinematic dollar!

QUOTABLE DR. VAN HELSING LINE: “The vampire, by its kiss takes the blood from its victim and makes of their victim another vampire. So the cult grows. Infinitely slowly, but it grows.”

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1. HERO: Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy/Andrew Keir)

FILM: The Quatermass Experiment, 1955/1956 (Director: Val Guest)
(plus Quatermass II, 1957 and Quatermass and the Pit, 1968)

ANTAGONIST: Alien Life Forms

A space shift with three astronauts is launched into outer space from a base in the United Kingdom. Days later, it crashes back to earth. When the director of the English rocket group Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) arrives on the scene, he attempts to establish radio contact with the crew inside. When that fails, Quatermass orders the doors to the ship opened. Only one crewman, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) tumbles out, and he is incapable of speech. The other two crewman are missing. Back at the rocket base team physician Gordon Briscoe (David King Wood) notices that Carroon is physically changing. Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) whisks her husband away from Quatermass, but loses her mind after she sees what Carroon is becoming. After a thorough examination of the spaceship, Quatermass deduces that an alien organism entered the rocket while it was in outer space and consumed the other two astronauts from within and is now changing Carroon into an animal/plant hybrid creature. Unless the missing Carroon can be located and destroyed, earth may become the new home for this horrible new life form.

For my money the best Hammer Horror Hero remains that plucky and pig-headed English rocket scientist, Professor Bernard Quatermass. Nothing stands in his way from getting at the truth, whether he’s figuring out what kind of alien life form has its eyes on the earth, or whether he’s trying to cut through the red tape with London bureaucrats. Quatermass’s sheer determination is a wonder to behold. He’s blunt, forceful and direct and knows what is needed to get the job done. My favorite scene in “The Quatermass Experiment” is when Quatermass goes to Scotland Yard to confront the local authorities over the missing astronauts. He pushes, bullies and prods Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner) into letting Quatermass lead the investigation. He knows that science is the only way to solve the mystery. I simply love Brian Donlevy as Quatermass (although Andrew Keir is wonderful as well in 1968’s “Quatermass and the Pit”). He plays the rocket man like one of his film noir characters from the 1940s. His compact body seems like a compressed spring that’s tightly coiled and just about ready to pop. His words are short, brusque and to the point. And his face doesn’t betray any emotion. Writer Nigel Kneale created an iconic scientist with Quatermass and more than 50 years later, no other cinematic scientist has been able to surpass him.

QUOTABLE PROFESSOR QUATERMASS MOVIE LINE: “It’s almost beyond human understanding. Some fantastic invisible force converted two men – into jelly?”

Of course there are other cool Hammer Horror Heroes (see below for a partial list), but these five remain my favorites. They were great cinematic role models when I was a boy, and even after more than 40 years, they still all seem larger than life.

Additional Cool Hammer Horror Heroes:

1. Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger) – “X- the Unknown”, 1956
2. Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing) – “The Abominable Snowman”, 1957
3. John Banning (Peter Cushing) – “The Mummy”, 1959
4. Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) – “The Kiss of the Vampire”, 1964
5. Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) – “The Gorgon”. 1964
6. Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) – “The Lost Continent”, 1968
7. Monsignor Ernest Mueller (Rupert Davies) – “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave”, 1968
8. General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) – “The Vampire Lovers”, 1970
9.Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir) – “Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb”, 1972

Selected References

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.

IMDB.com: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060841/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu. Accessed: November 29, 2013.

IMDB.com: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071276/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu. Accessed: November 29, 2013

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.