Yes, I did cop the title from one of my favorite movies, but that particular film is a love letter of sorts, and so is this. A love letter to Hammer Studios.
The Woman in Black came out on Friday and so I wanted to get all gushy about the studio that (to coin a cliche) has risen from the grave (hehehe). I am, among other things, a horror buff. But not just any form of horror – I’m not a big fan of torture movies like Hostel, or body horror in general – but good, old fashioned, halfway schlocky horror, with blood redder than paint, heaving bodices and gents in long capes. That’s my kind of horror. And as such, I adore Hammer horror.
For the uninitiated (shame on you!), Hammer Studios was a force in Britain back in the 1950s and 60s. They were known for producing vivid Technicolor films and many of the initial ones were color-saturated takes on the black and white classics: The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Curse of the Werewolf, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. Hammer was distinguished for hiring not just any actors, but great actors: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Herbert Lom; and a few youthful faces, like a young Oliver Reed somewhat typecast in Curse of the Werewolf. Unfortunately, the changing face of horror into the 70s slowly faded Hammer out and their last ditch efforts, most risibly Dracula A.D. 1972 (or, as I like to call it, Dracula Rides the Number Seven Bus) are truly awful. So they vanished, and have languished in purgatory for nigh unto forty years.
What makes Hammer so good is the combination of shock and awe effects, melodramatic stories, bright colors and brilliant actors. Take for instance Horror of Dracula, with Christopher Lee as the titular King of Vampires and Peter Cushing as his archnemesis Van Helsing. On the surface, it’s a half-adaptation of the book of Dracula, with smatterings of the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi and edges of the stage play. But under the direction of Terence Fisher (who did many of the best Hammer films), it becomes a bright, blood-soaked piece of high camp. It’s not quite scary – nothing in Hammer is particularly terrifying – but seems to revel in the melodrama, the unreal violence and satanic rites. It is a horror film with a moralistic edge, but it is one of the first I’ve seen that truly and unapologetically delights in the visual spectacle. Lee barely speaks a word, but his Dracula looms over the production, a malevolent and entirely enjoyable spirit of devilry.
Hammer benefited from the pedigree of its actors. They helped to lift what could have been fairly schlocky pieces of sensationalism to the realm if not of art, certainly of excellent entertainment. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were among the best and the majority of their films together are among the best known of Hammer’s productions. Lee and Cushing brought classical stage backgrounds to the screen. They delivered their lines with a combination of sincerity and self-awareness that made the more risible aspects of the features (the paint blood, the torn bodices, the plastic fangs) acceptable. There are few actors who can deliver soliloquies about the necessity of jabbing a stake into a young lady’s chest and make it seem logical (and not even creepy), but Peter Cushing pulls it off.
And then there are the surprises. One such is The Abominable Snowman, made early on into the studio’s history, and for once in black and white. It stars a youthful Peter Cushing chasing snow creatures around in the Himalayan Alps. The acting is top notch, naturally, but what surprised me most was the pathos of the film. It was exceptionally nuanced for the subject matter, and halfway through turns more into a examination of the human condition and the basic nature of man than a regular horror film. Which is quite something considering it’s about hairy apes in the Arctic. But that’s what has always thrilled me about Hammer films. They can be very surprising.
Again, not all of the Hammer features are as good as Horror of Dracula or Curse of Frankenstein. Paranoiac, despite a solid turn by young Ollie Reed, is basically Psycho for toddlers; and Dracula A.D. 1972 is almost a comedy. It is no surprise that Hammer slowly languished in the 1970s and then finally died. But it’s influence lived on. A brief moment of clarity came in 1967 when Polanski made his entirely underrated homage to the studio in The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Tim Burton likewise did his own version of the Hammer film with 1999’s Sleepy Hollow (which I happen to be quite fond of), complete with Michael Gough and Christopher Lee in bit parts. Hammer’s influence even extends as far as those prestigious forms of entertainment made by directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a memory of Hammer makes it almost bearable.
And now it’s back. It already produced the remake of Let the Right One In and has moved on to The Woman in Black. The Woman in Black has a Hammer pedigree: classic book, classic play, high melodrama and things that go bump in the night. If Daniel Radcliffe is not quite on par with Peter Cushing, that’s not his fault; few actors are. From the trailers and recent reviews, it does not seem to be Hammer trying to redo itself (no red paint, no lurid sexuality), but rather to recreate itself in the 21st Century. I have high hopes for the film. If it’s even on par with Frankenstein Created Woman, I’ll be damned happy. So, for those who have not yet experienced the true joy of spatters of blood-red paint and raucous carriage rides through the Transylvanian countryside, go now to your Netflix queue and shudder.