An Introduction to Classic Hammer Horror

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Over the festive period, and tying in nicely with the BFI’s Gothic season (now in its final month), the BBC showed a bunch of Hammer Horror classics, so for the past four nights I’ve caught up with them on iPlayer – and enjoyed them all a great deal. Even to this day, over 50 years later, they have the power to shock and creep you out, but above all else entertain. I was expecting kitsch and camp but, some rather dated comic minor characters aside, they all stand up remarkably well and are all good films in their own right.

The posters above, with their superlatives, exclamation marks and heaving bosoms suggest pure exploitation, but the reason they remain effective is because the restraint in deploying their more lurid elements. When a stake is driven through a vampire’s heart, or the face of Frankenstein’s creature is revealed, it’s genuinely gruesome, but if it was all blood and killing, not only would it have fallen (more) foul of the censors, it would seem pedestrian in these days of “anything goes” excess (I can like both!).

What sets them apart from typical B-movies of the period is the importance of the emotional and dramatic side in all these stories. The victims of Dracula and The Mummy are not just a gang of identikit teens, but the nearest and dearest of the protagonists, experiencing revenge from beyond the grave. The films still move at a fair pace, under 90 minutes them all, but by establishing the necessary relationships efficiently, it just adds that extra weight to make you care a little bit about what’s going on.

While the combination of writer Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher on The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, cannot be overemphasised, it’s Christopher Lee’s breakthrough performances as the respective monsters that leave such an impression. With his imposing frame, mute lurching and penchant for strangulation, he proves a menacing adversary in The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy, but it’s Dracula that really seals the deal. Just standing in a door frame, at the top of staircase or at a window is spooky enough, but after an eloquent introduction, he turns into a sexy hissing blood-sucking animal. It’s really something else. But what keeps it all together, and keeps it classy in the process, is Peter Cushing. Playing an academic who through his quest for knowledge is partially, sometimes wholly, responsible for unleashing such horror, he’s the master touch. Even when playing someone as blinded by curiosity and frankly terrible as Baron Frankenstein (though I did like Melvyn Hayes – most notable, to me anyway, as Skeleton from Superted – in a brief appearance as the young Baron), he takes it seriously and with real charm.

Of the four, The Abominable Snowman is the odd one out, as it is more typical of the period, closer to many of the B-movies of the 50’s in its execution than the deliberate spooky castles and misty swamps of the other three, but with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale, it is far more interesting than a simple “let’s go find a Yeti” pic might be. Ever the learned man, Cushing butts heads with Forrest Tucker’s brash yank, on the mission for purely commercial rather than research reasons, and its environmental message and downbeat conclusion, as well as some creepy mountain madness, make it certainly worth watching, particularly with a remake forthcoming from the recently reinvigorated Hammer studio.

While I suspect more blood and boobage, but diminishing returns as the studio moved into the 60’s and 70’s, I’d certainly like to continue working through some more Hammer Horror classics. So recommendations of what to watch next would be welcome!

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