The rise and fall and rise again of the Hammer House of Horror
The homegrown blend of Victorian melodrama and gothic is back
Sunday 16 December 2007
Are you ready for Dracula Is Dead and Living in Cyberspace? Or Frankinternetstein? If the first manifestation of the resurrected Hammer films is anything to go by, they may be coming sooner than you think.
Following the acquisition of one of British cinema's most famous brands, Hammer's new owners have announced that their first production will be a web-based movie, Beyond the Rave, which will be aired on MySpace. The trailer reveals a young squaddie who goes partying for 24 hours prior to his posting to Iraq. Inevitably, things turn ghoulish.
"Feature films take a long time to get into production," says Simon Oakes, CEO of Hammer. "This was a way of keeping the name alive and also introducing it to a new generation."
The company was acquired earlier this year by a European consortium headed by Dutch-based Cyrte Investments BV, the investment vehicle of Big Brother creator John de Mol. Under the stewardship of Oakes, the Hammer marque will live again with re-mastered versions of old favourites and a production slate of new movies.
Hammer Productions Ltd was formed in 1934 by a former comedian, William Hinds, whose stage name was Will Hammer. It went into production with its first film, The Public Life of Henry The Ninth, in 1935. After some years spent churning out cheap, location-based thrillers in black and white, director Val Guest made the Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. Based on the successful television science fiction series, it was commercially successful and put Hammer on the map.
But it was the advent of Eastmancolor and subsequently Technicolor, together with the discovery of the old Universal back catalogue of Thirties horror movies The Mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man that gave Hammer the fresh blood it needed. In 1957 The Curse of Frankenstein was unleashed and was quickly followed by Dracula, which was a huge hit. The fortunes of Hammer in its heyday, the Sixties, were high.
Hammer has been bought and sold several times since its decline in the 1970s, notably by a consortium headed by Charles Saatchi in 2000, which failed to breathe life into the brand.
Derided as pernicious trash by critics at the time, the films have since become an essential part of British movie history. Film-makers such as Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino often weave tributes to the studio into their own work.
Part of Hammer's success lies in the calibre of those involved in the films. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were great actors; Cushing had been part of Laurence Olivier's company in the 1940s, and Lee similarly brought a level of dignity to the proceedings that raised them to the realms of the mythological.
Cinematographer Freddie Francis and director Terence Fisher brought an elegance and intelligence to the work that defies belief, considering the ridiculously low budgets on which they were made. In 1956, The Curse of Frankenstein was made for 56,000; a year later, Dracula cost 75,000. They both went on to make a fortune.
Much of Hammer's work was based on the American Universal horror genre. It was also a marriage of Victorian melodrama and English gothic, with a dash of de Sade chucked in for spice. In its way, Hammer was the Merchant/Ivory of horror.
With new distribution conduits such as the internet being developed, the latest keepers of the Hammer flame have a better chance than most of re-establishing its reputation for quality horror.
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