Let the Blood Run Red (1983, Part 1)
Paul Roland braves the curse of the critics to trace the history of HAMMER – the house of horror
During the early 1980s I was writing for a number of film and music magazines and, being a huge horror movie buff, I naturally took the opportunity to suggest a Hammer feature at one of Kerrang’s weekly editorial meetings. It is basically an introductory overview of the studio’s horror output and for reasons of space omits reference to a couple of my favourite Hammer filmsm ‘The Witches’ and ‘Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’, but for those who are not hardcore Hammer fans it may be of interest for the brief quotes from Christopher Lee and the various Hammer ‘House’ directors. (My interview with Peter Cushing can be found elsewhere on this site).
Scene One – A banqueting hall of a nobleman’s castle deep in the Carpathian mountains. It is late evening and shadows shroud the gargoyles which stare down upon a long oaken dining table set for four – the travellers have been expected.
Suddenly, a dark figure steps out of the shadows and introducing himself as Klove, the servant, he informs the anxious guests that the master of the house is dead, but that he offers his hospitality even from beyond the grave. A deafening thunderclap and a fearful flash of lightning punctuates his welcome. The visitors ignore this rather heavy-handed warning and make their way up to their rooms.
One of the party, however, remains behind and is lured into the cellar by Klove and there stabbed to death and strung upside down like a cadaver over a stone sarcophagus. His throat is cut, as if part of some perverse ritual, and thick red blood drips steadily onto greenish grey ashes.
A hand reconstitutes itself and, gripping the side of the coffin, helps its occupant to rise. Dracula, Prince of Darkness lives again!
These images can only belong to the horror film and, to anyone familiar with their trademarks, to Hammer Films in particular.
During the years 1957–1976 this independent British film company produced a total of 140 films, 70 of them in the fantasy genre and all of these bearing a distinctive ‘house style’. The above scene is taken from ‘Dracula – Prince of Darkness’, but could just as easily have come from any one of the 16 vampire pictures they produced during the Sixties and early Seventies, when the name of Hammer became synonymous with that of horror.
The studio itself was based at Bray, an old manor house in large grounds by the Thames near Maidenhead, and was often used as a key location giving those films a familiar landscape in which to unwind.
Actors such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates and actresses Ingrid Pitt, Martine Beswick and Barbara Shelley featured in nearly every production lending a reassuring presence to the films in which they appeared.
Art Director Bernard Robinson created a stylised landscape that became instantly recognisable to fear fans the world over, often disguising sets from the previous productions to make the meagre budget stretch a little further. Producer Anthony Hinds regularly doubled as a script writer using the pen name ‘John Elder’, whilst scenarist Jimmy Sangster contributed his distinct writing style to stories which were then brought to the screen by one of three ‘house’ directors: Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis or the late Terence Fisher.
With their first full-blooded fantasy offering, ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, Hammer added a new dimension to the horror film, a dimension which had been lacking in the shadow-filled films of the 30s and 40s – colour.
Green and blue were used to suggest decay, while red began to dominate the screen at every opportunity. Virtually all of Hammer’s films are at least visually striking, thanks to the predominance of strong primary colours.
Where Universal and RKO had suggested horrors unseen on the screen, Hammer took advantage of the relaxation of censorship to show explicit gore and exploit the underlying sexual elements, particularly in their vampire films. When they premiered ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ back in 1957, the critics were outraged. Both cast and crew now recall these films with affection rather than horror. Christopher Lee once defended them saying, “The Dracula type of film is basically a morality play, with a mixture of pantomime, fairy story and melodrama…when evil meets good it must inevitably fall.” And he later remarked, “The critics are very unfair to Hammer; they criticise the films for being disgusting, shoddy and cheap. Yet there is more violence, sadism and obscene beastliness in three minutes of a Bond film than in twenty Hammer films combined.”
Michael Carreras, who ran the family owned Hammer firm with his father James, and who later steered the company single-handed, added: “‘Straw Dogs’ and the films of that genre are much more frightening than anything we’ve ever made.” But he recognised that there was a large new audience eager for a more explicit brand of horror film in keeping with the permissive mood of the Sixties, and was determined to give the public what it wanted. Times had changed dramatically since Universal had made its ‘Frankenstein’ series with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive; the horrors of the Second World War had surpassed anything that Hollywood was allowed to show on screen, and by the late Fifties television had brought grim visions into the living room. Ironically it was from television that Hammer began their reign of terror.
Prior to 1955 they had been subsisting on modest unremarkable supporting features often adapted from proven radio serials such as ‘Dick Barton – Special Agent’. But all that changed, when in February 1955, they released ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’, a faithful adaptation of Nigel Kneales’ successful TV series which had gripped British audiences in the summer of ’53. Brian Donleavy repeated his original role of Professor Quatermass, a scientist brought in to confront the unknown. In this first film (its success led to two sequels ‘Quatermas ll’ in 1956 and ‘Quatermas and the Pit’ 1957), he is forced to track down and destroy an astronaut who, on returning from a mission in space, has been infected with a deadly alien spore. Richard Wordsworth played the unfortunate victim who becomes to resemble a hideous squid-like creature, and is eventually electrocuted in Westminster Abbey. A much neglected actor, he invested his mute, tortured character with a rare humanity which invited comparison with Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s creation 25 years earlier.
“Even when it was in Westminster Abbey at the end, [it] had a kind of humanity that you could identify with. That suggested to us the Frankenstein monster idea and it worked…And that’s how it all started.” (Michael Carreras)
‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’ was quite a gamble for the small studio who had the additional disadvantage of being denied the use of the distinctive monster make up by the copyright owners, Universal Pictures. So, Hammer’s make up man Phil Leakey was forced to devise a different face for the creature, a ragged patchwork of scars and loosely stitched flesh.
The actor chosen to play the hapless creation was the then unknown Christopher Lee. A descendant of the Borgias and the Emperor Charlemagne, an accomplished fencer, linguist and semi-professional opera singer, Lee was chosen by Carreras simply because of his height – he was six foot four (1.93 m, ed.). Lee recalled, “I went along and actually convinced them that I would make a suitable creature. It didn’t worry me that they might make me totally unrecognisable, because I wasn’t getting anywhere looking like myself.”
The role of Doctor Frankenstein, the misguided physician who creates an artificial man from fresh cadavers, went to a quietly spoken and gentle Englishman named Peter Cushing.
“Cushing at that time was a big catch for us,” recalled Carreras. “He had just won the Best TV Actor of the Year award (for his performance as Winston in ‘1984’)…there was no conscious policy of creating a Hammer team of actors. It just happened.”
Cushing recalls: “I’d read in the newspaper that Hammer were going to remake ‘Frankenstein’, which I’d seen many years ago with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, and had thought that it was a wonderful film and a wonderful part. So I said to my agent, they are doing this and this is the sort of film I’d like to do if they still want me, but could we see Hammer’s most recent picture. They very kindly showed it to me—‘X-The Unknown’—which I thought was absolutely splendid.”
Having secured the part, Cushing searched out a copy of Mary Shelley’s original novel and, reading it for the first time, began to build his new character piece by piece in much the same way as the doctor would build his creature.
Frankenstein is not evil, he concluded, “but a man obsessed by what he is trying to achieve, by any means that will justify the end. You couldn’t just let him be a do it yourself merchant – there had to be a reason behind his actions, so I more or less based him on Dr Robert Knox, the famous anatomist who went to terrible trouble trying to get the medical profession to allow him to use cadavers. So he shut his one eye as to how Burke and Hare got him bodies.”
Cushing resolved to include “all the eccentricities and oddities of the man” in his characterisation and to “play it straight” at all times. Fortunately, Lee and Director Terence Fisher agreed to do likewise.
Lee has often remarked, “the portrayal from start to finish must be straight, honest and sincere. A trace of tongue in cheek deserves the audience’s laughter.”
At the time Lee did not receive the praise he deserved for his remarkable performance, though he did gain the admiration of his new friend Peter Cushing. “With the sort of make up Chris was given—it was a fleshy and rather horrid looking thing—you couldn’t play it as a mechanical, almost robot affair. What Chris based it on, which I think was really clever and where I think he got a lot of sympathy, was a child…a spastic child. And when he tried to sit down, he just fell down. I think he did a very, very difficult job very well indeed.”
Much of the film’s success is due to Cushing’s cruelly calculating doctor, but another contributing factor was Terence Fisher’s suitably gothic direction.
“Hammer wanted me to see earlier film versions of the Frankenstein story,” he once recalled, “but I refused to do this, because I think everyone should bring his own individual approach to the subject…I wanted the film to grow out of personal contact with the actors and out of the influence of the very special sets.”
It is these sets, stylised and brightly lit, which give Hammer’s horror films an almost fairy tale quality. Theirs is a romanticised world, where Victorian gentlemen stride knee-deep in the London fog, and where European castles echo to the sound of decadent laughter, while ‘chocolate box’ peasants mutter superstitious warnings below.
‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ broke all records on its release and spawned five sequels, all of which starred Peter Cushing, but in none of them did the good doctor succeed in creating a man.
In ‘Revenge of Frankenstein’ (1957) he transferred the brain of his hunchback assistant into a new body only to have it turn cannibal; in ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ (1964) he reactivated an earlier failure with predictable results; in 1967 ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’; in ’69 Freddy Jones was the unlikely recipient of a mad surgeon’s brain in the penultimate shocker ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’; and in ’73 he stitched together his final failure from living donors then resident at the local madhouse in ‘Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell’.
Still, we can’t all be perfect.
“No one at all connected with the Frankenstein film realised where it was going to lead to. It was just a picture in a group of five they were doing that year…It was a ridiculous budget – 65,000 pounds. As a budget for a film that was nonsensical. But it made a fortune for Hammer and everyone else, so they spent a little more on the next one, ‘Dracula’.” (Peter Cushing)
For ‘Dracula’, Carreras cast Lee as the vampire count, an obvious choice, considering his imposing stature, aristocratic bearing dark European features and seductive vocal delivery, while Cushing appeared as his nemesis Dr Van Helsing. Again the film’s treatment of a classic novel was far more explicit in its depiction of gore than previous Hollywood versions, while Director Terrence Fisher drew on the novel’s sexual undercurrents for additional contemporary appeal. Count Dracula’s female victims welcomed the vampires bite as they would a lover’s kiss.
Fisher explains, “I think my greatest contribution to the Dracula myth was to bring out the underlying sexual element in the story…I love ‘Dracula’…it had everything in it. Most important was the sexual attraction of Dracula towards his victims which is the fundamental power of evil…he had the power of evil, of vampirism, but he showed it only through suggestion.”
Lee was particularly pleased with his new starring role. “Dracula was, I don’t mind admitting, a fine film. It had that fundamental seriousness about it – as Bram Stoker’s book does. After all it is something more than just a horror story. At the bottom it’s a morality play; the theme, the struggle between good and evil, is as old as literature itself. Dracula is total evil. He is the extreme of the evil side which is in most of us. Yet, he is also a sad creature, drained and weak in the daytime, doomed to live forever, because he is so wicked he can never die and be at peace.”
The film is notable not only for Lee’s convincing interpretation of the count, but for a sequence in which a nubile young vampire is staked while resting in her coffin and there withers into an old hag before our eyes. Prior to this the death throes of the undead had always taken place off screen.
Fisher again, “It was important that it should be shown what happened to them when they were staked…it was important to show the actual release of the vampire.”
The original ending of the film was to have been far more conventional, until Cushing suggested adding a spot of “Douglas Fairbanks – a jolly good leap…the script just said that Van Helsing gets out his crucifix and forces Dracula into the sunlight. I said that it would be absolutely marvellous if they could jump off a balcony onto the curtains…but they couldn’t construct a balcony because it would be frightfully expensive, and they’d shot already and they’d already built the set. What we did have was a long refectory table. I ran along it and leapt as far as I could and pulled the curtains down, which was much more effective.”
Having forced the count into the sunlight, Van Helsing watched anxiously as Dracula’s body disintegrates into dust. Effects expert Les Bowie achieved this remarkable scene by filming the disintegration backwards. He began with a small pile of dust then after shooting a few frames added more dust and a couple of bones. A few more frames of film were exposed, then a skull was added with shreds of cloth and a hank of hair. A few more frames and then putty was moulded piece by piece to the skull and bones to look like decaying flesh. The final sequence took a total of 20 takes, but lasted for just over a minute of screen time. It remains a dramatic and fitting end to a remarkable movie.
‘Dracula’ confirmed Cushing as a major new figure in fantasy cinema, and brought instant stardom to Christopher Lee. “It was the one that made the difference,” he later said. “It brought me a name, a fan club and a second hand car, for all of which I was grateful. It also, if I may be forgiven for saying so, brought me the blessing of Lucifer, the third and final nail in my coffin. Count Dracula might escape, but not the actors who play him.”
Lee was to don cape and fangs for a further six films under the Hammer logo, though by the fourth his disillusionment with the character was showing. “All I get to do is stand around on unhallowed ground, sweep down corridors and make the odd pounce or two…,” he said indignantly.
But in ’59 he had had no fears of typecasting, he was happy just to remain in work.
After his success in ‘Dracula’ he was chosen to play the title role in ‘The Mummy’, an intelligent and atmospheric chiller loosely based on the Karloff vehicle of 1932.
As the eponymous creature, Lee was utterly convincing. Swathed from head to foot in bandages he was forced to convey emotions through his eyes alone. But not all his suffering was feigned, however. Make up expert Roy Ashton later explained, “Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that my first attempt at Mummy make up would adhere so closely to his face. It was very uncomfortable for Chris, because there was nowhere really for him to breath!”
As Kharis, guardian of the princess Anunka, Lee was required to seek out and destroy the three archaeologists who had discovered her tomb. Peter Cushing played the third member of the expedition, and was to encounter the mummy for the first time after it had reduced his front door to splinters.
“Part of the trick in that sort of thing is to make sure the door isn’t locked,” he explained. “So that it bursts open just before your blows begin to shatter it. On this occasion the door had been locked. I nearly knocked myself out going through it and dislocated my shoulder.”
For the climactic scene Lee had to carry heroine Yvonne Furneaux into a convenient swamp, and there encountered further discomfort.
“Going through these swamps holding the girl out in front of me caused an enormous strain on my arms and back, and with all the wires and tubes and jets and pipes in the studio tank crashing into your shins I was torn to bits, bleeding all over the place.”
Audiences of course, were totally unaware of these difficulties and flocked to see ‘The Mummy’ in droves. Thanks to Carreras’ policy of putting every penny of the budget on the screen rather than in hidden production costs, it is a film which looks far more expensive to make than it was, and it too led to a number of enjoyable but largely undistinguished sequels, the first being ‘The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’ (1964), the second ‘The Mummy’s Shroud’ (1967) and the last (and worst) ‘Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb’ (1971).
By this time Hammer were acknowledged as natural successors to Universal (who, ironically, had become one of their distributors), and as such were given remake rights to many of the classic creature features produced by them and other prestigious American studios during the 30s and 40s. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is not strictly a horror film, though in remaking it Hammer exploited every opportunity for suspense, piling on the artificial fog to Transylvanian proportions. Cushing excelled as the arrogant Holmes (a part he was later to recreate with great success in a television series about the fictional detective), while Christopher Lee swapped sides to play the victimised beneficiary Sir Henry Baskerville.
That same year Lee was retained to play the hero in a disappointing version of ‘The Man In Half Moon Street’ retitled by Hammer ‘The Man Who Could Cheat Death’ (1959). This time Anton Differing struggled with the secret of everlasting life before succumbing to his true age of 104 in the last reel, and disintegrating into dust.
This article was originally published in Kerrang! in 1983.
Read: Part Two of this article
Posted on February 17, 2013, in films & movies, horror films, Paul Roland and tagged British cinema, Christopher Lee, Hammer films, horror, movies, Paul Roland, Peter Cushing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.