Let the Blood Run Red (Part 2)
Paul Roland (still) braves the curse of the critics to trace the history of Hammer, the House of Horror
The following year, Hammer released no less than three films, two of which have since become classics of the genre, while the third, ‘The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll’, remains an interesting curio. Jekyll featured Paul Massie in the title role, portraying Dr J as a bearded, insensitive scientist, and his primitive half as a handsome, clean-shaven sadist. A unique interpretation and one which easily stole the acting honours from Christopher Lee, who had been relegated to a minor supporting role.
A second offering, ‘The Curse of the Werewolf’ (1961), was based on Guy Endore’s neglected novel ‘The Werewolf of Paris’ (1933) and is responsible for launching Oliver Reed on an unsuspecting public! Beneath Roy Ashton’s superb make up, Reed projected the tortured personality of a man doomed to a living nightmare; helpless to prevent his lycanthropic tendencies possessing him at each full moon. By transferring the story to Spain, the film benefits from that countries oppressive religious atmosphere and brings further conflict in the form of a romantic subplot.
Director Terrence Fisher, who had been responsible for eight out of twelve pictures released by Hammer since 1957, ranked ‘Werewolf’ as one of his favourites.
“I like it because of the tremendous inter-relation between the characters, between Reed and the girl. After all, anyone can turn into a werewolf, can’t they? But it was his situation that made it exciting. The horror of him knowing that it was going to happen to him, but that he couldn’t do anything about it…An audience I believe will respond to this, because they can understand the emotional pull between people much more than the fact of someone turning into a werewolf.”
Although Fisher viewed it as no more than “a rather grim fairy tale” many critics, and certain sections of the public, were disturbed by what they saw as Hammer’s glamourisation of gratuitous violence. Producer Anthony Hinds rallied to his studio’s defence. “I don’t drive the public into the cinemas,” he countered. “They go, because they want to go, but only when there is something they want to see.”
Such sentiments were echoed by cast and crew, with Lee remarking, “Hammer have found that people like to be entertained, I cannot put it more succinctly or clearly than that. They supply demand. People all over the world enjoy the basic human feeling of fear, but it is a cosy fear, because you know it cannot happen…Hammer is Grand Guignol, in which some very great people have performed, these films are fantasies, pure and simple…Our brand of horror is just good fun. Nobody is going to try and copy it in real life…[we] are out to thrill our audiences pleasurably, not to horrify them.”
Proof of which can be found in their third release of 1960, ‘Brides Of Dracula’, a movie which relies almost entirely on atmosphere for its effect. Despite its title, it bears no relation to the seven Christopher Lee ‘Dracula’ films, though it was originally intended as a sequel to the first film, until Lee made it clear he would not repeat the role at this stage of his career.
In ‘Brides’ David Peel appeared as Baron Meinster, the vampire, while Cushing provided an element of continuity by recreating his role of Van Helsing. We first see the Baron chained and imprisoned in the room of a chateau owned by his mother the Baroness, but when a young governess staying the night discovers this, she wastes no time in setting him free. After three exciting encounters with Van Helsing, the Baron is finally destroyed when caught in the shadow of a huge cross created by his adversary from the blades of a burning windmill.
The following year Hammer leapt aboard the ‘Psycho’ bandwagon with a clutch of derivative movies, all bearing similar titles and linked by the common themes of murder and insanity. The cycle began with ‘Taste of Fear’ (generally regarded as the best of the bunch) and was quickly followed by ‘Maniac’ (1963), ‘Paranoiac’ (1963), ‘Nightmare’ (1963), ‘Fanatic’ (1965), ‘Hysteria’ (1965), ‘Crescendo’ (1970), ‘Straight On Till Morning’ (1972) and finally ‘Fear In The Night’ (1972).
Incidentally, ‘Taste of Fear’ marked the Hammer debut of director Seth Holt, who also made ‘The Nanny’ with Bette Davis, the only other film in the series of any real worth.
1962 saw the appearance of Hammer’s version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ which paled in comparison with the 1925 original and failed to provide any of the shocks which Hammer were naturally expected to produce.
In direct contrast came ‘Captain Clegg’, an unpretentious and spirited feature based on the life of the notorious smuggler Dr Syn. Peter Cushing starred as Clegg, the smuggler who evaded detection by masquerading as the local vicar, and Hammer beefed up the tale by depicting his men riding through moonlit woods disguised as skeletons.
Naturally, a number of similar pictures followed. ‘The Pirates of Blood River’ (1962) featured Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed, the ‘Scarlet Blade’ (1963) had Reed and Lionel Jeffries and ‘The Devil Ship Pirates’ (1964) cast Lee as the leader of a Spanish raiding party shipwrecked off the English coast.
More familiar fare followed with ‘Kiss of the Vampire’ (1964), but neither Dracula nor Van Helsing were present. The story, brought credibly to the screen by Don Sharp, concerned a honeymoon couple lured into a vampire cult by one of their number, Dr Ravna. The wife is eventually saved by a Van Helsing type, and the evil cult destroyed by a horde of blood-sucking vampire bats. This climax was originally intended for ‘Brides of Dracula’, but was substituted for the more imaginative windmill solution at the last minute.
By the mid-Sixties, Hammer’s dominance of the genre was being challenged by more violent examples from the continent, and so in an effort to regain their lead they began to produce a series of double bills. The first of these was ‘The Gorgon’ coupled with ‘Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’. The former marked Barbara Shelley’s Hammer debut and featured the first Cushing/Lee confrontation since ‘The Mummy’ six years previously. Cushing played Shelley’s guardian and Lee Professor Meinster, an academic out to uncover the perpetrator of a number of ghastly murders in which the victims were literally petrified with fear. It was obvious from the first that Shelley was the mythical creature responsible for these deaths, though her appearance as such in the closing scenes failed to convince.
In 1966 Christopher Lee appeared as ‘Rasputin The Mad Monk’ on a double bill with ‘The Reptile’, which had Jacqueline Pearce as a snake woman on the rampage in Cornwall.
Keen-eyed punters were quick to spot the village from the latter re-appear as the main set for ‘Plague of the Zombies’ (1966) and Rasputin’s Russian palace double for Castle Dracula in ‘Dracula – Prince of Darkness’ (1966).
As Dracula, Lee was denied any dialogue, though his performance is no less commanding for this. This time he is pursued and finally
destroyed by Father Sandor, a gun toting priest, whose pistol shot breaks the ice on which he is standing, sending him to a watery grave.
Hammer were frequently accused of bad taste and shallow exploitation, but ‘Dracula – Prince of Darkness’ contains a scene, which hints at thought processes beyond the narrative requirements of the scene.
A female vampire (Barbara Shelley) is pinned down by monks and staked while writhing on a table normally used for the illustration of bibles.
The sexual undertones are quite obvious (celibacy compensation, etc.), but the effect achieved by the monastery setting is to add ambiguity to the role of the protagonists. The monks represent age and order, both religious and civil, while the vampire symbolises youth, sin and anarchy. Such symbolism did not go unappreciated in the political and social climate of the mid-Sixties when everything connected with the ‘establishment’ and the church was being questioned.
For those who saw these films as a loose patchwork of cinematic clichés, the argument is that the use of such clichés has a reassuring effect, and therein lies one aspect of their appeal. Another is that Hammer represented a form of baroque nostalgia which flourished for a time when Victorian and Edwardian style clothes were in fashion. Accordingly, the audience for these films were young, mainly adolescents who, it could be argued, were in sympathy with certain characters on the screen. They too felt awkward, sprouted unwanted body hair, came into conflict with parents (creators), equated love with aggression, and vice versa. They were taught that premarital and extra-marital sex were wrong, but were supposedly tempted by tall, dark handsome strangers or nubile and mysterious young girls frequenting the cities and town after dusk.
No one elemental psychology was necessary, however, to appreciate the appeal of Raquel Welch, Hammer’s new discovery and star of their 100th production ‘One Million Years BC’. Scantily clad in a fur-trimmed bikini, she led her prehistoric tribe in battle against Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs, in this colourful remake of the 1940 flic ‘Man and His Mate’. Harryhausen had created mythical and prehistoric beasts for many memorable fantasy movies, including ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ and ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, though Hammer’s tight shooting schedule and limited budget forced him to compromise and adapt real lizards in a couple of scenes. Together with effects expert Les Bowie he produced a number of exciting action sequences, including a fight between Raquel’s screen lover and an Allosaurus. Bowie worked fast creating his barren volcanic world in just six days, all for a measly 1,200 pounds and resorting to ‘Blue Peter’-like short cuts, including the use of porridge for lava!
Panned by the critics, but again immensely popular with the paying public, ‘One Million Years BC’ established Raquel Welch as a major new screen personality and gave Hammer the means to embark on a new cycle of prehistoric features.
‘When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth’ followed in 1970 with Victoria Vetri as a voluptuous cave girl who domesticates a baby dinosaur! Not a patch on its predecessor, ‘Dinosaur’ dropped Harryhausen in favour of Jim Danforth and even spliced in stock footage from a 1960 film called ‘The Lost World’!
The aptly titled ‘Creatures The World Forgot’ (1971) was quickly forgotten as were its distant relatives ‘Slave Girls’ (1968) and ‘The Viking Queen’ (1961).
In ’68 Lee returned in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ as an expert in the occult who pits his wits against a band of Satanists led by Charles Gray.
Fisher evoked an atmosphere of brooding menace with a sharp eye on period detail, and Lee gave a good account of himself as usual.
Freddie Francis took some of the pressure off Fisher’s shoulders by taking the reins of ‘Dracula Has Risen from The Grave’ (1968), which cast Rupert Davies and Veronica Carlson opposite Lee’s neck biting nobleman. Francis admitted that he approached his first Dracula project as a love story rather than a horror film, “But a lot of that was cut out by Hammer…one was given a pretty free hand on the floor. But one really didn’t have much time to do anything on the editing side – the films went through a mincing machine and it was almost just a case of cutting out the clapper boards and putting the film together, but I liked working at Bray…and we had great fun.”
Another new name behind the camera in the late 60s was Roy Ward Baker, who came to Hammer to direct ‘Quatermass And The Pit’ in ’67 but who didn’t get his teeth into anything (sic) substantial until 1970 and the erotic ‘Vampire Lovers’. This was the first in a trilogy of tales based around the lesbian vampire Carmilla Karnstein created by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. ‘The Vampire Lovers’, its sequel ‘Lust For A Vampire’ (1971) and prequel ‘Twins of Evil’ (1971) dwelt on the ‘unnatural desires’ of the buxom corpse whose libido had obviously not diminished with the passing of centuries!
Bakes later recalled, “I was determined not to make an exploitation movie about lesbian vampires – I wasn’t going to be ‘funny’ about the subject…you’ve got to take these films seriously when you’re making them. You’ve got to make it seem real…you must believe in what you’re doing.”
Ingrid Pitt was suitably seductive in the first film, until decapitated by the father of one of her victims General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing). Yutte Stensgaard revived (sic) the role in ‘Lust For A Vampire’, fooling all but her devil worshiping teacher Ralph Bates as she ravished the students of an exclusive girls finishing school before being staked by a falling beam in a burning building. Her spirit took on earthly form for the last time, just long enough to initiate one of her decadent descendants (Damien Thomas) to the ranks of the undead in ‘Twins of Evil’, but the story really centred on two identical sisters and their witch-finding Puritan uncle played by Peter Cushing.
‘Avengers’ Director John Hough ensured the latter nipped along at a steady pace whilst preserving the rich period atmosphere associated with the best of Hammer’s costume dramas.
‘Twins’ played the circuit on a double bill with a rather unpleasant minor offering ‘i’ (1971), which Angharad Rees as Jack The Ripper’s murderous daughter and Eric Porter as the psychiatrist intent on curing her.
With all their expertise and resources Hammer were never able to produce a definitive version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde’, but in ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971) they came pretty close.
To the discriminating viewer it was rather a hotchpotch of incongruous elements of which the body snatchers Burke and Hare were the most obvious. The fact that these two ‘gentlemen’ operated exclusively north of the border didn’t seem to worry scenarist Brian Clemens or director Baker, who set their story in the fog bound alleys of Whitechapel!
The young Ralph Bates had been groomed by Hammer as successor to Peter Cushing and, having proved his worth in ‘Taste The Blood of Dracula’ (1970) and ‘Horror of Frankenstein’ (1970) (an insipid remake of ‘Curse’ with a bald David Prowse as the monster), was given the plum part of Dr Jekyll. Experimenting with female hormones supplied by Burke and Hare he transforms himself into the dark and predatory Sister Hyde (Martine Beswick) and as such sets about the prostitutes of the East End, Ripper style.
The transformation sequences were admirably fluid thanks to the marked resemblance of the two leads, a fact which did not go unnoticed by their director, “It was uncanny…I regret that I didn’t make more out of the eroticism in the situation.” Perhaps it was better that he hadn’t, for ‘Sister Hyde’ succeeds well enough without and it concluded a year in which the studio reached the peak of its output with no less than 10 films on release.
But the end was already in sight. ‘Vampire Circus’ (1972) was the last major feature of any note to emerge from Hammer. Lalla Ward (later to be Dr Who’s assistant and Mrs Tom Baker) appeared as a female vampire who, along with her nocturnal blood kin, was able to transform herself into a bat or large animal at will. The finale saw Lalla impaled on a gigantic cross, her ‘brother’ staked while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with outraged townsfolk, and their leader beheaded with a crossbox!
Unfortunately, Carreras didn’t quit while still ahead. Instead he battled against the general fall in cinema attendances and jaded public tastes by providing more lurid thrills which betrayed desperation on his own part.
He transported Dracula to contemporary London for ‘Dracula AD 1972’ (1972), an erratic entry, which committed the cardinal error of having a middle-aged scriptwriter write fashionable dialogue for teenage characters. Despite the embarrassing banter ‘Dracula AD 1972’ contained several memorable scenes, including the resurrection of the count and his inevitable destruction at the hands of Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).
‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’ (1973), however, offered no thrills of any kind, though Lee was more than usually magnetic in his last appearance as the count presiding over a financial empire in the heart of the metropolis. The ultimate blood sucking capitalist!
Shortly after filming Lee announced, “I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it. I no longer have to do it and no longer intend to do it. It is now part of my professional past…I am now one of the many actors who have played that part.”
In 1974, the general financial climate became prohibitive to the production of independent filmmaking and Hammer made a last desperate bid to postpone the inevitable with ‘The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires’, a co-production with the Shaw Brothers, a company specialising in Kung Fu films! ‘Legend’ was a patchy and hastily assembled exploitation movie which only hastened the end.
Michael Carreras said later, “Let’s just say that East did not meet West…we just had two different points of view.”
Hammer’s final fling was ‘To The Devil A Daughter’ (1976), adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel and as nasty a piece of filming as ever came out of England. In an effort to duplicate the sensations of ‘The Exorcist’, director Peter Sykes had babies bursting out of their mother’s wombs ‘Alien’-like, which sickened the stomachs of all who saw it. Christopher Lee led a group of Satanists whose mission it was to provide a ‘daughter’ (Natassja Kinski) for the devil Ashtaroth, but who came a cropper thanks to the determination of do-gooder Richard Widmark.
Putting this unpleasant experience behind him, Lee looked back on his days at Hammer with satisfaction. “I have had marvellous people to work with at Hammer. It was a family…this was this tremendous spirit of achievement…we really felt that we were doing something and we were, we were creating milestones in the history of the cinema in a sense…I’m never going to leave the area of the macabre, as I call it. I will still be romping around the graveyard for some years, I hope.”
Cushing shared his opinion adding, “I think horror films are marvellous…horror pictures are fantasies that take people out of themselves…horror pictures give me so much pleasure. Give up playing Van Helsing in ‘Dracula’? Over my dead body.”
In an effort to explain the sudden decline of his gothic empire, Michael Carreras said, “The old approach is no longer marketable…the market has become flooded. It reached a point where the major American distributors said, ‘no more’ and the whole cycle came to an end…There is also the problem we have with competing against ourselves – in all those other countries the distributors still have fourteen or fifteen old Hammer films currently on release…he is unlikely to pay more for the new one if the salesman from Warner Brothers has just been around and given him say, five older ones for peanuts.”
Although the old sets are now dismantled and the cast and crew dispersed around the globe, Hammer continues to chill the blood with midnight movie revivals and its occasional series of thrillers made especially for TV, ‘The Hammer House of Horror’.
Commenting on the launch of this new venture Carreras said, “The exciting thing is to create something new and hope that it will still be satisfying to the people who enjoyed the old ones.”
This article was originally published in Kerrang! in 1983.
Read: Part One 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.