ARTS : CINEMA : Dead men walking

Next month, the Barbican is celebrating 40 years of Hammer horror. Matthew Sweet welcomes the return of the living dead
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The Independent Culture
It's forty years since Hammer Studios ushered in a golden age of British horror with its visceral version of The Curse of Frankenstein. For most of the Sixties, Hammer was laughing all the way to the blood- bank: the profitable formula of girls and gore even won it a Queen's Award for Industry in 1968. But by 1970, its market had begun to collapse, and attempts to diversify into TV spin-offs could not save it from ruin. Next month, however, the Barbican is dishing up 40 choice cuts from the Hammer charnel house. And here, to deflect that silver bullet of critical respectability, is our guide to the bloody, strange world of Hammer horror.

BEWARE THE BEAT OF THE CLOTH-WRAPPED FEET! Nothing can match the measured formality of this poster line for The Mummy's Shroud (1966). "Drink a Pint of Blood a Day!" was spattered across posters for Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Hammer publicists often created marketing gimmicks for their films before the script had even been written: goggly eyes were given to lucky patrons of Plague of the Zombies (1966), and The Stranglers of Bombay (1960) offered cult murder in "Stranglascope".

DOOBEE DOOBEE DOO! Hammer's imaginative regular composer James Bernard used the films' titles to structure his incidental music. Therefore it's possible to sing the title along with the score, adding extra fun to any screening of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973).

LOCUSTS FROM SPACE! A piece of tripe stuffed with fireworks formed the alien monstrosity of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). Ian Scoones improvised Martian mayhem in Quatermass and the Pit (1967): "We based it on football games in pubs, where you get a line of plastic players stuck on a metal rod. We had loads and loads of locusts: there was an awful smell in the studio."

BARE-BREASTED SEXPLOITATION! With The Vampire Lovers (1970), Hammer created that charming sub-genre, the Lesbian Vampire Movie. With an emphasis on the dormitories of central-European finishing schools, the studio offered topless body horror in the form of Kate O'Mara, Ingrid Pitt and Ralph Bates.

TORQUEMADA'S REVENGE! The week before filming began on their Spanish Inquisition spectacular, The Rape of Sabine, Hammer bosses learnt that the Catholic League of Decency planned to sabotage the film's US distribution. Overnight, Curse of the Werewolf (1961) was written for the Catalan village set on which they'd spent their budget. He with the hairy hands was Oliver Reed - his first proper job, at pounds 90 a week.

DISASTER ARIA! The studio was terribly pleased when Hammer fan Cary Grant requested the lead in its re-make of The Phantom of the Opera (1962). Unfortunately, the star failed to turn up for shooting: cue Herbert Lom from the subs' bench.

WHEEL ON THE KILLER CRABS! Hammer scored its biggest financial success when Raquel Welch was crammed into a fur bikini for One Million Years BC (1966). A sequel, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1969), was Oscar- nominated for its special effects. Conversely, The Lost Continent (1968) featured some of cinema's most engagingly poor monsters. Thrill as Eric Porter grapples with a rubber octopus! Scream as a giant crab proudly displays its castors! The scriptwriter was so dismayed that he gave the screen credit to his gardener. And to make matters worse, Steven Berkoff's in it.

OUT FOR THE COUNT! At the conclusion of Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee dissolves before our eyes, as his own roll onto the flagstones. But you can't keep a good vampire down: In Taste the Blood ... , depraved aristocrat Ralph Bates plots to resuscitate the Undead with the haemoglobin of Roy Kinnear, but soon finds himself on the menu. In Scars of Dracula (1970), an obliging puppet bat gobs restorative gore into the Transylvanian sepulchre. But after Denis Waterman has kebabbed him on a lightning-struck railing, the Count has to wait until Dracula AD 1972 (1972) for spaced-out swingers to resurrect him during a black mass.

HORRIBLE DEMISE ... By the end of the Sixties, the studio was desperately trying to diversify: a Bacofoiled Warren Mitchell failed to excite in the lunar western Moon Zero Two (1969). (A planned sequel, Disaster in Space, never made it off the launch pad.) Hammer staked the Dracula cycle by relocating to Swinging London: "Tell us about the blood, Johnny!" coo the hipsters who follow the cult of Johnny Alucard. The Count's final outing, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), went into production as Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London. Those gruesome horrors Holiday on the Buses (1971) and Man About the House (1974) were the final nails in the Hammer coffin.

! 'Hammer at the Barbican': Barbican Cinema, EC2 (0171 638 8891), 2- 29 August.