Echoes from the vault

1955 saw the birth of Hammer's first horror. Kevin Jackson celebrates 40 years of stage blood, wobbly sets and heaving bosoms
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The Independent Culture
Anniversary frenzy is upon us, and we aren't out of the woods just yet. National pride and academic prejudice have turned up so many conflicting dates for the origins of cinema that we can expect to be enjoying (or enduring) celebrations of the movies' centenary for the next 18 months or so. Let's hope, though, that all the hoopla about the Lumiere brothers and their interesting gadget doesn't wholly obscure the significance of a 40th anniversary that falls later this summer. It was on 26 August 1955 that an ailing British production company opened its latest modest offering at the London Pavilion. The film was The Quatermass Experiment; the production company Hammer Films.

One could argue that this unheralded premiere was almost as momentous for the British cinema as 8 May 1956 - the first night of Look Back in Anger - was for the British stage. As the critic and screenwriter David Pirie pointed out in his pioneering study A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972, the opening sequence of Quatermass now seems emblematic of the assault Hammer was about to carry out on the nation's genteel screens. A pair of clean-limbed, simpering lovers romp through a meadow and embrace chastely on a haystack; a screaming comes across the sky; the lovers flee and a giant metal tube plunges directly on to the spot where they had been smooching. As connoisseurs of the genre will recall, this was not to be the last time that Hammer would smuggle cheeky sexual imagery into their yarns.

Before Quatermass, Hammer had gone in for the innocuous likes of Men of Sherwood Forest and The Lyons Abroad, adapted from the radio programme. Critics hated the new kind of Hammer product with a passion that now seems preposterous. When the company released The Curse of Frankenstein the following year, C A Lejeune of the Observer called it "among the half- dozen most repulsive films I have encountered". Other critics were not so kind. One scolded the Hammer staff that theirs was "a sickening and nauseating way to make a living"; another called for the creation of a new SO certificate for Hammer products, signifying "Sadists Only".

Either the Divine Marquis had more followers than anyone realised, or the critical fraternity had dropped a clanger. Box-office staff around the world became overworked with every new Hammer release; in the Philippines, the first Hammer Dracula outgrossed My Fair Lady. (Incidentally, overseas versions of Hammer productions were always a lot more bloody than those for the domestic market.) So conspicuous was the company's international success that, scarcely more than a decade later, the British Establishment had clasped Hammer to its bosom. Sir Henry Floyd, Lord Lieutenant of the County of Buckinghamshire, presented the 1968 Queen's Award to Industry to Colonel James Carreras, Hammer's managing director, on the set of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.

Hammer itself never quite managed to emulate the Count's enviable capacity for auto-resurrection. It went under with the rest of the British industry towards the end of the Seventies, and though the company has since come up with various television projects (Hammer's House of Mystery and Suspense), it has not produced a feature since 1979 (The Lady Vanishes) or a horror film since 1975 (To the Devil a Daughter, Nastassja Kinski's screen debut).

In its two decades of triumph, however, Hammer became virtually synonymous with British Horror - so much so that the average viewer tended to think that every spooky film of the period was a Hammer production, even when its credits bore the name of the company's rivals or imitators, such as Amicus (Scream and Scream Again) or Tigon (who produced the extraordinary Civil War drama Witchfinder General, directed by Michael Reeves, who died shortly afterwards at the age of 25). In the process, so Pirie argues, it created "the only cinematic myth Britain can properly claim as its own, and which relates to it in the same way as the western relates to America".

Forty years after Quatermass, there are still plenty of people who would agree with that bold claim. Earlier this year, after months of market research, the Marvel magazine group launched Hammer Horror, a glossy, minutely detailed publication dedicated, as its masthead puts it, to "the Films the Facts the Faces from the Studios that Dripped Blood". Now up to issue four (cover story: Rasputin the Mad Monk; main features include profiles of the Hammer directors Freddie Francis, Don Sharp, Peter Sasdy and Seth Holt), the magazine has a circulation of around 40,000.

"But that's worldwide," explains its editor, Marcus Hearn, "sales are highest in the US and Japan... and the Philippines. Some of our readers are middle-aged and saw the films when they first came out, but others are quite young - I'd have said too young to see some of the stronger films." And the readers who keep the circulation figures so healthy are finally being served by the video distributors: this month, Lumiere Pictures release Rasputin and Frankenstein Created Woman and Dr Crippin as part of their "Hammer Classics" series (pounds 10.99).

"But," Mr Hearn adds with some indignation, "you still can't buy some of the really important Hammers - the Quatermass films, or the first Frankenstein and Dracula. The main reason is that a lot of Hammers were co-produced with American studios, and they're just languishing in major studio vaults over there."

It's not hard to see why Hammer products should have an enduring appeal for older viewers, since time has added an unforeseen glow of period charm to their more robust virtues; harder to guess why viewers who cut their teeth on the Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th films should find such comparatively tame fare so palatable. Mr Hearn confesses himself baffled on this point, though he hazards that there is a significant tranche of horror fans who look to their screens not for mutilation and corpuscles but for an elegant, well-codified repertoire of Gothic images - the same murky pool that Hollywood tried to dip into with its two recent forays into high-budget horror, Coppola's Dracula and Branagh's Frankenstein.

This seems plausible, as does the observation that Hammer's films have lasted because, like cars and battleships, we really knew how to make them in the old days. True, the name can connote ropey special effects, too many repeated views of the Bray Studios set, Barbara Shelley's bosom heaving beneath a diaphanous nightie and a pointed stick, and gloriously silly titles like Plague of the Zombies. Yet it also summons up the names of those intelligent, dignified and endlessly watchable actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (recently feted by a season on the cable channel Bravo); some of the most faithful and atmospheric adaptations of the fantastic strain in English literature, from Bram Stoker to Conan Doyle; and, for buffs, the cinematic style of Terence Fisher, the one Hammer director to have achieved widespread, if hotly disputed, recognition as an auteur.

Indeed, even Sir Kingsley Amis, who has no truck with such trendy gibberish (and who once wickedly observed that the minor actors in one of Fisher's best films, The Devil Rides Out, looked "oddly unattractive, as if the cast had been made up hastily from the sociology department of one of our new universities") conceded that Hammer's dealing with the supernatural could occasionally leap out of horror into "a sort of art".

In the past few years, some pundits have been urging the example of Hammer on younger British film-makers, thus far without result: the few British horror films of the Nineties have stressed the "Gore" rather than the classiness of "Kensington Gore" (the jocular name for the stage blood Hammer used so freely.) But there are any number of gifted, highly commercial horror novelists in his country, from Stephen Gallagher and Ramsay Campbell to Kim Newman and Anne Billson. An alliance, unholy or otherwise, between such writers and a few gifted producers might be just the thing to drag the old corpse yelling and kicking from its dank grave.

n July's 'Fantasm 95' festival at the NFT, London, includes a retrospective work of Freddie Francis, the cinematographer and leading Hammer director; for details call 0171-928 3535