Posted by David Kalat on June 20, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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