When I am asked what my guilty pleasures are, I often mention Hammer horror films. But I shouldn’t really, as I don’t feel remotely guilty about them.
I knew about these films in considerable detail long before I had watched any. Back when I was about nine or ten years old – that’s the late 60s and the very early 70s – Scottish Television used to show these films late night on Fridays, and my parents, being responsible and taking their parental duties somewhat more seriously than I at the time considered appropriate, would not allow me to watch them. But I used to read with keen attention the programme notes in TV Times, and, at play-time on Monday mornings, my friend – Terence, I remember his name was – whose parents were clearly more liberal than mine, would fill me in on all the details. And marvellous details they were too. There was the creature whose very look could turn people into stone, and who had to be decapitated; there was the vampire-hunter who, having been bitten in an old windmill, has to cauterise his wound with red hot metal before dispatching the vampire by chucking holy water into his face; and so on. Violent? Yes, I suppose they were, and, in retrospect, I can see that my parents were perfectly right to guard me from such nightmares. But really, they were no more violent than the books I was reading, such as Treasure Island; or the Grimms’ fairy stories I had been told when I was even younger. These films, even before I’d seen them, stirred my imagination with the same disturbing intensity. And by the time I came to actually seeing them, I was already a teenager, and they had all the attraction of fruit hitherto forbidden.
Of course, all that was many years ago, and no, these films don’t frighten me any more. But I enjoy still entering these dream-like fantasies; I enjoy still that evocation of childhood nightmares, as haunting and as vivid as the Grimms’ fairy tales. To see what I mean, look no further than the first of Hammer’s Dracula films – entitled simply Dracula in the UK release, but re-titled Horror of Dracula in US – in which the little girl Tania is led by the hand by her Aunt Lucy, who, unknown to Tania, has now become a vampire. No blood and gore, no exploding heads or special effects – merely a simple image of a little girl walking outside in the night, hand in hand with a young lady who is dead. And yet a scene like that has a resonance that I can’t quite bring myself to describe. I am not frightened by it as such – not these days, anyway – but I know that had I seen this back in the days when I wasn’t allowed to, this simple image would have scared me far more than any of the gore-fests that pass for horror these days.
No, I am not claiming that these films are great masterpieces of the cinema: we’re not talking about La Grande Illusion here, or Wild Strawberries. But for all that, there was considerable craftsmanship in these films, bordering at times, I think, on genuine artistry. At the very least, if terms such as “cinematic genius” can be bandied about when talking about something so pedestrian as Kubrick’s The Shining, I don’t see why similar terms should be inapplicable here.
One of the first things to note about these films is their visual splendour. Unlike something such as The Shining, these films were made on shoestring budgets, but the images throughout are magnificent. I was tempted to put up some stills on here to illustrate my point, but really, I can do no better than to direct you to this site, where you may survey at leisure what I think are some of the most striking images of cinema. (And may I mention here my cyber-friend Stuart Hall – hmmm, there’s something that sounds vaguely sinister about that term “cyber-friend”, isn’t there? – who is responsible for many of these excellent screen grabs?)
The Hammer studios seem to me to be among the very first to make creative use of colour. As we look through the films of the 40s and 50s, we find that cinematographers had achieved a very high level of sophistication in black and white photography. But then, colour came in, and commercial considerations demanded that more films be made in colour. But in most of these early colour films, the cinematography is simply bland. The cinematographers, who could put black and white cinematography to such superb expressive use, didn’t quite know for a while what to do with colour. But look at those Hammer films: has colour ever been put to such expressive use, I wonder? Look at the dream-like fairy-tale quality of something like The Gorgon, or at that beautiful pinkish light colouring so much of Brides of Dracula. Who would have thought that horror, of all genres, could be so lyrical? Cinematographers such as Jack Asher or Arthur Grant or Michael Reed may not be the best known of cinematographers, but their work in these Hammer films was tremendously imaginative, and they don’t, I think, often get the credit they deserve.
With a big budget, it’s no great trick to achieve the visually spectacular, but with the kind of budgets that Hammer used to work on, a greater imagination was required. In The Plague of the Zombies, for instance, in that splendid graveyard sequence, we see in passing a puddle that is coloured blood red; at the end of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, we find one of the most striking of all images, as Count Dracula weeps tears of blood. You don’t need a multi-million dollar budget for that sort of thing – merely an imagination.
There are a great many names that should feature in a roll-call of honour: James Bernard, who provided so many of those wonderful scores; directors such as Don Sharp, John Gilling, and, of course, the great Terence Fisher (and not forgetting Freddie Francis, quite rightly acknowledged as amongst the greatest of all cinematographers, who took his hand to directing and came up with such gems as Dracula Has Risen From the Grave). And there were the casts, of course. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were the mainstays, obviously, but there were also Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Andre Morell, Ingrid Pitt, Jacqueline Pearce, Noel Willman, and, of course, Michael Ripper, everyone’s favourite landlord … names that roll of the tongue of any aficionado of the genre. Let us not get too involved in compiling lists of the great Hammer names: we’d be here all day, and there are bound to be important names missed out. And in any case, I am a novice when it comes to knowledge of British horror films: for real expertise, you should try some of the contributors on the British Horror Film board.
So what are the best ones? I think it is fair to say that not all Hammer horror films are up to the same high standards, and while a consensus of sorts does emerge, there is, nonetheless, considerable disagreement on this question. The two series that formed the backbone of Hammer’s output are the Dracula series, and the Frankenstein series, and, it’s fair to say, I think, that it’s the latter that is the more intelligently scripted, while the former is the more iconic in visual terms. What is remarkable, though, is the way they kept re-inventing the myth. Thus, the first Dracula film re-treads (with, admittedly, a great many alterations) the route mapped out by Bram Stoker’s novel; but thereafter, with each resurrection of the Count, they try to do something different with the elements of the story. After the first two Dracula films, (the second of which – Dracula Prince of Darkness – is possibly my personal favourite of all Hammer films), director Terence Fisher left the series, but Freddie Francis picked it up with the visually splendid Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, while Peter Sasdy took on the next one, the marvellously titled Taste the Blood of Dracula, which re-created the myth to fine effect in a completely different dramatic context. After that, it must be admitted, the series declined, and some of the later attempts to bring Dracula into 1970s London were only partially successful. Nonetheless, the first four films in the series are among the very best of all vampire films. And we must add to these the two vampire films Hammer made that don’t feature the Count – Brides of Dracula and Kiss of the Vampire: anyone wanting to know what attraction Hammer horror has to aficionados could do no better than start here.
For many, the Frankenstein series is even better. There are, strictly speaking, five of these – all directed by Terence Fisher: The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. (Hammer made a few other Frankenstein film as well, but they were not directed by Fisher and aren’t anywhere near the standard of these five.) The most famous film version of Frankenstein is, of course, the old Universal film directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff unforgettable as the monster, and while I think Hammer’s Dracula films eclipse the Universal Dracula films, the same cannot be said for Frankenstein: if the very name Dracula conjures up pictures of Christopher Lee, it is still Boris Karloff we first think of when we hear the name Frankenstein. Nonetheless, Hammer put their own unmistakable stamp on the myth. After the first in the series – which, as with the first Dracula film, treads more or less familiar ground – the Hammer studios began to re-imagine the myth in all sorts of ways. Thus, in the second film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, the monster is played, quite superbly by Michael Gwynn, without make-up: here, the monster is an ordinary man who knows his brain is deteriorating and that there is nothing he can do about it. There is projected a surprising pathos, and the climactic scene, in which the monster crashes through the French windows into an aristocratic society event, and, in despair, begs Frankenstein to help him, is one of Hammer’s most effective set-pieces. The third in the series, Frankenstein Created Woman – a great favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, by the way – the story is re-imagined yet again, as Frankenstein succeeds in isolating the essence of our individual existence – the “soul”. The fourth, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, is perhaps the most adventurous film the Hammer studios ever made, and is, in the opinion of many, the best. It features an intelligent script, and, also, two of the finest performances in all Hammer films – that of Peter Cushing, increasingly ruthless and obsessive and crazed by the power he wields, and that of Freddie Jones as the “monster”, projecting an emotional depth one would not have thought possible given the context. A gruesome but nonetheless highly effective Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell finishes off the series – a series that seems to me to be among the finest achievements of British cinema.
Apart from these two series, there are a great many other delights: there’s The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell as Holmes and Watson, and still, to my mind, the best screen adaptation of this story; there are those two splendid films directed back to back on the same sets (Hammer was never one to waste good money!) by John Gilling – The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile; there’s Christopher Lee’s exuberant, no-holds-barred performance in Rasputin, the Mad Monk; there’s the delicate Grimms’ fairy tale atmosphere of The Gorgon; there’s the highly successful venture into Dennis Wheatley’s world of satanic rites in The Devil Rides Out (and featuring the by now legendary threat of the villain Mocata – played with tremendous menace by Charles Gray: “I won’t be back … but something will”); there are those vampire hunters led by religious maniac Peter Cushing in Twins of Evil, who institute their own reign of terror by burning at the stake those they think are in league with the Devil; and so on, and so forth.
We all have our favourites. So when, at the end of the week, one wants to relax and unwind, what better way that slipping into one’s dressing gown and slippers, pouring oneself a glass of one’s favourite malt whisky, and curling up in one’s favourite armchair to watch something classy like Taste the Blood of Dracula! Now, there’s a pleasure I most certainly don’t feel guilty about.