FILM / Fangs for the memories: It's gory. It's bloody. It's tacky. And it's back. Or that's the rumour . . . Kevin Jackson reports on the revenge of the Hammer Horror movie

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Midnight. Clouds flicker across the gibbous moon and rats scuttle to and fro in quest of juicy prey. This is no place for pious souls; and those hunched forms who move stealthily towards the crypt by the light of guttering candles are surely no Christians. Indeed, scarcely do they seem human as they set about their unholy work. For in the crypt lies a form that has been thought extinct, lo, these many years. But the Believers know otherwise. The body is not dead, but undead. Feed its dust with warm and vibrant blood, and it will rise again to stalk the earth and breed fresh terrors. . .

Well, H P Lovecraft would have managed the style more elegantly, but the facts are pretty much accurate. The corpse is the British Film Industry, and the Believers are those who not only maintain that it can be revived with some transfusions of money and ideas, but think that its best chances lie in a return to the tradition of Hammer films - low-budget, high-talent horror movies with indigenous themes.

The American screenwriting guru Michael Hauge, for example, suggested a few weeks ago that if British screenwriters were really so fed up with having no one to write for, they should simply scrape together a few thousand pounds and make a micro-budget crawler, just as Sam Raimi did in the States a few years ago with his immensely successful The Evil Dead. On a more elevated plane, Philip Dodd, the editor of Sight and Sound, used a recent editorial to point out signs of a minor Gothic revival in the cinema and elsewhere and to urge its importance.

Pressed to expand on these notions, Mr Dodd suggests that: 'The really interesting thing which has happened in the last 10 years or so is the rise of what you might call the 'Forbidden Planet' (chain of comic shops) culture, a whole generation of people who are now around 30 for whom things like Nosferatu (Murnau's vampire film of 1921), DC comics and Hammer are all part of the same world. The future is likely to lie with people like that, who don't see horror as a slumming thing at all, but understand that the Gothic can articulate ideas about sex and death in ways that aren't available to realism.'

In other words, the Hammer tradition seems to offer a seductive combination of art and commerce. Sniffily as many critics may have treated them at the time, the company's legions of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, hosts, mummies, zombies and reptiles are now regarded with affection and respect. Their directors - Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis et al - are often hailed as auteurs; and producers look back fondly to the time when Hammer's 'Kensington Gore' was such a hot export that the company won the Queen's Award for Industry.

Before we all start rushing out to buy some nice sharp fangs and a cloak, it would be as well to recall some of the reasons why Hammer perished and why it would take more than a bucket of virgin's blood to revive it. Now, strictly speaking, Hammer never did quite expire; if you look up the number in the directory and call it, a helpful lady will point out that the company has been busy making television series such as Hammer's House of Mystery and Suspense, and assure you that a return to film production is imminent.

Even so, it has been 13 years since Hammer last made a feature (The Lady Vanishes, 1979) and 17 since they last produced a horror movie - To the Devil a Daughter, in 1975. The decline in production was sudden - in 1972 / 3 some 34 British horror films were produced, which is more than twice the figure for the Eighties - and can't entirely be attributed to the difficulties of one single company, however prominent. The film critic and horror novelist Kim Newman puts it succinctly:

'What crippled them was the collapse of their domestic market, and that happened because they lost the high ground to Americans. First of all, films like Night of the Living Dead were much tougher and more graphic than anything Hammer were doing; and then mainstream films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist came along to do what they did, but with much higher production values. It soon became clear that the British public were fed up with 19th-century period settings, and Hammer's attempts at modernity, like Dracula AD 1972, have an air of desperation.'

The screenwriter and critic David Pirie, whose excellent book A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972 (1973) now reads almost like an obituary of the genre, largely agrees with Newman's analysis, and adds that 'the broader point is that the major American studios have simply co-opted all the B-feature genre ideas which were the province of small companies, not just the horror movies. So these days it's hard even for the small American production companies, like Roger Corman's, to break into the system. The big companies have simply eroded the available territory.'

All the harder, then, for British-spawned monsters to invade the American market nowadays - not least because those very period settings which alienated the home audience were, curiously enough, something of an advantage overseas. Pirie believes that '19th-century England was comfortable for Americans because of the books they'd read at school - they knew it was full of fog and Jack the Ripper. But it would be extremely expensive to make those period films these days, and on the whole, Americans just don't want to see films about modern-day Britain.'

Which is why the latest version of Dracula, even though it has British actors (Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins) and is largely faithful to the Victorian settings of Bram Stoker's book, has been made in America and directed by Francis Coppola. For all that, Kim Newman thinks, 'it may well be that now that the period tradition has rested for a while, it's ripe for revival.'

The international success of Granada's intelligent and strongly Gothic treatment of the Sherlock Holmes stories in the last few years certainly hints that there is a substantial audience for Victorian chills, and a good many writers persist in going in for fantasy by gaslight; would-be Hammer revivalists in search of properties could do worse than track down Newman's own book Anno Dracula, which sees the infamous Count married to Queen Victoria.

Another horror novelist and critic, Anne Billson, also points out that we are neglecting one of our key national resources. 'If you look at the American cinema, you realise that one of its staples is Stephen King. Britain has any number of terrific genre writers like King, but film-makers have neglected them almost completely - it's crazy that Ramsey Campbell has never been filmed, or that there hasn't been a movie of James Herbert's The Fog. It once looked as if Clive Barker might be able to do something here, but now he's gone to America. The next film he's producing, Candy Man, will be made by an English director, Bernard Rose, but Barker has had to transfer it from Liverpool to Chicago.'

Billson and Newman both agree that one of the major non-economic obstacles facing horror film production is simply snobbery. Even television companies are generally loath to back projects 'which are simply horror stories, with no other claims to dignity', as Newman puts it; and this despite such splendid precedents as Nigel Kneale's Quatermass series for the BBC (and, later, Hammer), or the more general point that British writers and artists from Shakespeare to M R James have always excelled at supernatural themes.

For all the economic, cultural and commercial blocks in the road of neo- Gothic film-makers, Pirie none the less believes that the field could be made promising. Two British-made horror films of the Nineties, Hardware and The Lawnmower Man, have already raked in millions at the US box office, albeit at the expense of forfeiting any perceptible British identity.

Even so, the fortunes of Alan Parker's The Commitments prove that it is sometimes possible for local subjects to cross the Atlantic without having to lie about their national origins. Messrs Pirie and Dodd both guess that the most interesting Gothic work to be made in this country will probably continue to be for television - sometimes straight, more often as a crossbreed with other genres: the thriller (Prime Suspect), the classic series (Bleak House), or literary adaptations such as The Green Man, from Kingsley Amis's ghostly novel.

As to movies. . . well, in 1973 Pirie made a fascinating suggestion. Praising Michael Reeves's civil-war chiller Witchfinder General (1967, and strictly speaking a Tigon rather than a Hammer film), Pirie proposed that it 'contains the seeds of something which could yet develop into an important cinematic idiom in this country, and one which is as intrinsically native to England as the western is to America.

'The literary romantic tradition into which it shades has as much affinity with Malory as with the Gothic and is virtually untapped by current popular English forms'. Two decades on, Witchfinder General still appears to have no visible progeny. If, however, younger British film-makers can absorb the implications of this film and go on to apply them, then it may indeed prove that the British Gothic film has - and not just in the vampire-slaying sense - a stake in the future.

(Photographs omitted)