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Hammer? I Hardly Know Her!

Writing about Hammer horror is always a bit intimidating, because there are other Morlocks with greater knowledge and authority on the subject (RHS, I’m looking at you!) so I generally feel my time is better spent in my own niche (like slapstick or screwball comedy). But with Monday’s Hammerathon coming up I can’t help myself. So here are some stray observations and anecdotes, and some fun pix.

Back in 1999 or thereabouts, David J. Skal was contracted by Universal to produce bonus feature contents for their slate of classic horror DVDs. Eventually the studio went a different direction with those releases and parted company from Skal, but not before he’d squandered some of their money recording an interview with me for what was intended to be included on the DVD of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

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David ran his operation like a general runs a war, and my interview was recorded back-to-back with Brides of Dracula’s Yvonne Monlaur. Being a veteran of the SF convention circuit, Yvonne was up to speed on the whole history of Hammer Studios, not just her little corner of it. So, she held forth quite competently on this history for the cameras. As it happened, the camera operator had brought her daughter to work that day, and this precocious ten-year-old girl was increasingly fascinated by the story being told by this glamorous old-school movie star. Eventually, Yvonne got to the 1970s, and she told how the studio became breast-obsessed in the likes of Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers. When the shoot wrapped, the girl asked her mom if they could rent some Hammer horror movies right away. The mom didn’t miss a beat: “Sure. I think we’ll stick to the early stuff.”

It’s not an uncommon reaction. The usual line is that the early Hammer films are the good stuff—proper English entertainment from the respectable Messrs. Cushing and Lee. Conventional wisdom is that as budgets dwindled, imaginations did too.

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Balderdash, I say. Late period Hammer is where it’s at, man. I love the deliriously inventive and wondrously strange nutball lunacy of The Lost Continent, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, Moon Zero Two, or Lust for a Vampire. Personally, I consider The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires to be the studio’s greatest masterpiece. I never tire of it.

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires fight

Back when I was running All Day Entertainment, I had many conversations with Perry Martin at Anchor Bay, truly God’s gift to cult movie fans. He “got it,” and worked arduously to ensure that video store shelves were filled with pristine editions of genre flicks.

I still remember vividly one of our earliest conversations. We were talking about the challenges of selling niche market videos, and I brought up Hammer films because in my mind, this was an example of a stable market: a known brand name and a loyal coterie of international fans.

But Perry saw it differently. He was all too keenly aware of the limits of the Hammer market, and the risks of trying to sell decades-old drive-in fare to a 21st century audience.

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He likened Hammer films to jazz music—the kind of entertainment that a label can confidently measure as a known quantity—a small loyal audience, but hard to grow.

It was a dispiriting talk. I mean, I’m a jazz fan, but it’s not like every market has a jazz station. I’d assumed Hammer was closer to say, classic rock. If Hammer was a tough sell—what hope did I have, marketing even more obscure titles?

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My one experience selling a Hammer film (no, The Asphyx doesn’t count. Right era, wrong studio) was Tales of Frankenstein. The producers of the Blu-Ray of Curse of Frankenstein got this right, and slotted Tales in as a bonus feature, buried in the menu. A side dish, if that, or a a garnish—not an entrée.

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The general crumminess of Tales of Frankenstein is hard to credit. The production team certainly could do great work—elsewhere. This TV pilot feels like an after-thought, slapped together to fulfill a contractual obligation.

Seeing the modern aesthetic of Hammer intermingled with the Gothic atmosphere of Universal horror was in principle a great idea, but the balance is off—too much Universal, not enough Hammer.

Maybe the mistake was in thinking they could capture lightining in a bottle. Sure, Hammer churned out brilliant films on a shoestring budgets and tight schedules, but trying to do that weekly for network TV is a bigger ask.

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Hammer lives on, you know. They still make movies—but the old magic is gone. It’s not like they’re working on the next Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Those days have passed.

 

9 Responses Hammer? I Hardly Know Her!
Posted By jennie.smith : June 20, 2015 11:58 am

yeah u r right hammer production always produce the scary movies. best the hammer horror series

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : June 20, 2015 1:40 pm

Glad to see love for THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. I have a preference for Hammer Vampire movies preferring the 70s entries. Another one love is the SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA wich plays as kind of krimi/Hammer vampire flick. I suspect the distribution for Hammers 70s movies is also a factor is the illusion of low quality. I don’t think they had the same deals as before with Columbia, Fox, and WB.

Posted By swac44 : June 20, 2015 6:35 pm

Funny, I had my Anchor Bay DVD of Legend of the Seven Golden Brother out a month or so ago, happy to see it hadn’t succumbed to the DVD rot that supposedly afflicted some of AB’s early Hammer titles. Lots of fun, crazy genre bending, and a remind that I have yet to watch that other Hammer/Shaw Brothers collaboration Shatter. I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up, but how can it not be fun?

I definitely love the ’70s titles, Vampire Circus is completely out to lunch, and I get definite chills from the psycho-thriller Straight On ‘Til Morning. I wish I’d been able to see more Hammer titles as a kid, only Quatermass & the Pit made an appearance on our local cable movie matinee show. But I’ve managed to make up for lost time since then.

Looking forward to a collection of four Hammer titles on blu-ray from Warner Brothers later this year!

Posted By george : June 20, 2015 8:11 pm

I like both early and later Hammer films. STRAIGHT ON TIL MORNING is a real sleeper. On finally seeing it (on YouTube), I asked: “Why isn’t this as well known as PSYCHO or HALLOWEEN or PEEPING TOM?”

VAMPIRE CIRCUS is as close to surrealism as Hammer got. DEMONS OF THE MIND and FEAR IN THE NIGHT are also worth seeking out.

Posted By george : June 20, 2015 8:25 pm

“I suspect the distribution for Hammers 70s movies is also a factor is the illusion of low quality. I don’t think they had the same deals as before with Columbia, Fox, and WB.”

Warner’s decision not to distribute SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES may have led to an assumption that these were inferior movies. They actually weren’t bad. (I saw them several years after they were made, under different titles.)

When major American studios lost interest in distributing Hammer films, it was probably a fatal blow to the company.

Posted By GAMERA2000 : June 21, 2015 3:01 am

Though I love the early Hammer I have fond memories of late Hammer. For one thing, the later films were poised right on the cusp of the era when censorship was becoming looser. As a result they gave the younger filmmakers who were coming in great freedom. VAMPIRE CIRCUS is wonderfully surreal and the Carmilla trilogy have wonderful moments.
Also, I caught MOON ZERO TWO on late night movies on CBS back in the 70′s and it has a great 60′s feel to it from the animated opening to a pop song, to the set designs. While THE LOST CONTINENT has a great pulp atmosphere to it, with monsters and spanish conquistadors trapped in the Sargossa Sea.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : June 23, 2015 7:16 pm

When I was a kid, it was the older Hammer films that got the airplay, but I recall that around the time I was in high school some of the smaller UHF stations started running the later ones, like Lust for a Vampire. They were like a breath of fresh air, so different from the ones I’d been watching for years, and they were completely new to me. I still don’t encounter them as often, so when I do, they still excite me more than another viewing of Horror of Dracula or Curse of Frankenstein.

To this day, I still come across Hammer films I’ve never seen before. In recent years, TCM has introduced me to The Gorgon, The Reptile, and Plague of the Zombies, ones I never saw as a kid.

Posted By swac44 : June 23, 2015 7:27 pm

After Quatermass, my next memorable Hammer experience was a 35mm screening of Countess Dracula with Ingrid Pitt. Perhaps not top-drawer Hammer, but visually lush, and seeing it on film made a big difference, there’s something about the photography and colour in those movies–especially on the big screen–that made me realize at once why the series was so special.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : June 24, 2015 4:55 pm

“RHS, I’m looking at you”

Huh, what? [Spills Yoo-Hoo on pants.]

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