The horror, the horror

Hammer films, set for a month's retrospective at the Barbican, reveal as much about the British society of their day as they do about the eating habits of werewolves. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
There's a theory that the historical course of British cinema has always run along parallel lines, unconsciously projecting the divisions of the class system on to the fabric of the national screen. On the one track, there's the stately locomotive of "Quality British Cinema", steaming along on the fuel of improving literary adaptations and tasteful production values, manned by the likes of Powell and Pressburger, David Lean and Carol Reed, and continuing today, perhaps, through the Anglo-American productions of Merchant-Ivory. On the other, lower, track puffs the rough engine of popular appeal, from the Mancunian comedies of Frank Randle, Old Mother Riley and George Formby, to the cockney japes of the Carry On crew, the costumed melodramas of Gainsborough Pictures and the Gothic shock of Hammer. With the distinctive world of Ealing comedy falling somewhere in between the two.

The story of Hammer and its founders, which forms the basis for this month's Barbican retrospective of over 40 Hammer films starting tomorrow, is itself a kind of Ealing comedy, featuring a small, family-run operation spanning three generations, which bravely battles against the Hollywood giants to become one of the most successful independent studios in the world and then dies. Formed by cinema-owner Enrique Carreras and businessman- entertainer William Hinds - whose stage name of Will Hammer gave the company its name - the studio had been going in various guises since the 1930s until the move into horror in the mid-Fifties gave Hammer, noted previously for programme-fillers usually featuring an American star on the wane, a much needed corporate identity. In the cold, grey light of Macmillan- era England, an atavistic London pea-souper descended, through which rude flashes of vivid colour disgorged familiar monsters from the Hollywood past such as Dracula, Frankenstein, his monster, and the Mummy, all speaking in plummy actor-manager tones as if coached by Sir Donald Wolfit. Loved by the young Martin Scorsese in the flea-pits of New York, disdained by genteel critics like CA Lejeune and Dilys Powell, and lapped up with alacrity by the cinemagoing public of the time, the horror productions of Hammer Films remain a unique achievement.

They also span a fairly brief period, from The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 to To the Devil... a Daughter in 1976, though by then decadence had long since set in, with the last five years sullied by the ludicrous Dracula AD 1972, featuring the Prince of Darkness in a kaftan and kipper tie, and no less than three movie spin-offs from On the Buses. Any notion of decline must, however, take Hammer's list of previous convictions into account; at the same time as the best of the Gothic horrors were being produced, the studio also made Don't Panic Chaps! and I Only Arsked. The reliance on other media to provide stories also began early. Many of the studio's greatest successes, like the Dick Barton series or The Adventures of PC 49, were derived from BBC radio programmes, and the film which started the trend for horror, The Quatermass Xperiment, from 1955, began as a television play. The adventures of Reg Varney were, therefore, less an aberration than part of a continuing theme.

The horror movies are particularly interesting in terms of the social context of the times. In the era of Suez and the realisation that imperial ambitions were at last at an end, Christopher Lee's Dracula emerged as an upper-crust gent from a much bolder age, intent on preserving a culture of deference at teeth-point. Dracula, and the figure of the vampire generally, is such an unstable symbol that it can be read as meaning almost anything. In Bram Stoker's novel, as interpreted in Reading the Vampire by Ken Gelder (Routledge, 1994), Dracula can variously stand for the Jew, the Oriental, the revolutionary, the homosexual (or untrammelled sexuality in any form). Whatever you like, really. As played by Lee, he becomes an old-style toff in an opera cloak, recalling the Henry Irving persona that had inspired Stoker.

The Hammer horrors are full of powerful father figures who are forever battling it out over the fates of the young 'uns, as with Drac and Van Helsing or - in perhaps the best of all the films, The Devil Rides Out - Lee's Duc de Richleau (a goodie) and Charles Gray's marvellously evil Mocata. According to Peter Hutchings in Hammer and Beyond (Manchester University Press, 1993), who offers a Lacanian psychoanalytical reading of the films, the controlling elders are always attempting to fix the identities of the unstable ingenues, who are apt to go into a trance at the drop of a hat, following a familar trope from pop movies such as Beat Girl. The kids, in other words, are anything but all right, and this can be read within a social context of rioting, drug-addled mods and rockers in need of a firm parental hand or rod. Also reinforcing the unconscious subversion at work in the Hammer oeuvre are the various wild girls, from Marla Landi's Cecile in The Hound of the Baskervilles, to Ursula Andress in She and Raquel Welch in One Billion Years BC. Building on a stereotype of the woman outside society already evident in Gainsborough's The Wicked Lady and Caravan from the Forties, the Hammer versions are Tank Girl before their time and as camp as a tentful of vicars.

One notable feature that unites Hammers good and bad, goth and schlock, is the quality of the music. From the pairing of Paul Robeson and Elisabeth Welch in Song of Freedom, from 1936, to shorts featuring jazzmen Eric Winstone, Kenny Baker, Johnny Dankworth and Edmundo Ross, with Alma Cogan on vocals, the studio offered quite unprecedented opportunities for popular musicians. The soundtracks of the horror and thriller movies are often particularly memorable, with scores by Elisabeth Lutyens, Richard Rodney Bennett, Master of the Queen's Musick Malcolm Williamson, and the masterly house composer James Bernard, who scored almost all of the Dracula films. Bernard also scored Joseph Losey's The Damned (1963), a film screened so rarely that it has acquired legendary status.

Fans of On the Buses will get their just desserts, when Reg Varney stars in what the programme bills as a typical "Women's Lib tale of a London bus driver who is stunned by the arrival of women drivers". Faced with Reg, "Quality British Cinema" begins to sound like a very attractive proposition, although perhaps what is really needed is a Merchant-Ivory remake of On the Buses, with Ralph Fiennes as Reg. Then the two tracks of British cinema could at last converge.

n From tomorrow to 29 Aug. Barbican Centre, Silk St, London, EC2. Booking: 0171-638 8891