Hammer Horror


Hammer Horror
   In the 1960s, Hammer Films dominated the horror genre at home and abroad, achieving unparalleled economic success in the British film industry and generating a host of classic horror movies. The studio’s most significant films represent a triumph of creativity and imagination over budget, and offer suspenseful plots complemented by vivid visual effects, atmospheric sets and strong casting. Beginning as a ‘B’ movie company, Hammer’s fortunes changed in the 1950s with The Quatermass Experiment (1955), a science-fiction thriller adapted from the successful television series. Having secured this foothold, the studio drew inspiration from the themes of Hollywood’s 1930s horror films, and made Britain’s first horror film in colour, The Curse of Frankenstein (1956). This venture united the talents of Hammer’s most prolific director, Terence Fisher, with actors Peter Cushing (as Dr Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the monster). The roles were the first of many which would come to define Lee and Cushing as Britain’s leading horror stars. Hammer quickly confirmed its pre-eminence in horror with the release of the studio’s most evocative and powerful film, Dracula (1958), directed by Fisher, and starring Lee (as the Count) and Cushing (as Van Helsing). With The Mummy released the following year, the studio’s key prototypes were established. During the 1960s, when Hammer reached the peak of its commercial achievement, these assorted formulae were reworked in a succession of sequels. While standards varied and budgets remained small, innovation was sporadically offered in films such as Taste of Fear, a psychological thriller, The Devil Rides Out, a robust story of occultism and satanic worship, and The Nanny, with ageing silver screen actress Bette Davis as a psychopathic child minder. Despite Hollywood’s influential revitalization of the horror genre in the 1970s, with films like The Exorcist and The Omen, Hammer failed to respond to changing tastes and soon the cracks in their output began to show. The studio was still depending far too heavily on overused themes and the results were frequently poor: tired plots, histrionic performances and female stars cast with increasing gratuitousness. However, moving away from horror further precipitated the studio’s demise, and film-making ended in 1979 with the remake of the thriller The Lady Vanishes. Despite huge commercial success, Hammer rarely received critical acclaim. However, with the studio’s popularity maintained by small screen exposure, new critical responses are beginning to emerge.
   See also: science fiction; thrillers
   Further reading
    Maxford, H. (1996) Hammer, House of Horror, London: Batsford.
   ALICE E. SANGER

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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