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Tales of Terror…

As Halloween approaches, what better time to celebrate the cultural legacy of one of British cinema’s greatest cinematic chillers? Best known for their Gothic horror period, Hammer Films have lifted the lid on  a coffin thought long-sealed and is rising again!

HELL AWAITS

Surprisingly, Hammer had little to do with scaring folks witless in the early days – its beginnings a lot humbler than the heavily stylised scares they would become famed for. The real-life Dr Frankenstein was theatre comedian Will Hammer and the first film produced by Hammer was a comedy: 1935’s ‘The Public Life of Henry the Ninth’. It tells the story of Henry Henry, a down on his luck London street musician – and currently on the British Film Institute’s ‘75 Most Wanted’ list of lost and long forgotten films not known to be available or within cinematic archives.

DIGGING UP THE BODY

The 1946 return of executive producer James Carreras, following World War Two, proved something of a rebirth for Hammer, as suppliers of ‘quota quickies’ (low-budget movies designed primarily to satisfy the Cinematograph Films Act, brought into law in a bid to stimulate a declining British film industry). Hammer Horror was officially born in 1955.

Its first picture was an adaptation of the BBC science-fiction serial ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, directed by Val Guest and released as ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ –
a ploy to cash in on the then-new ‘X’ certificate for explicit films.

The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification), were not happy, though. The company voluntarily submitted all its scripts to the national censors at the time, and examiner Audrey Field commented of ‘X The Unknown’, an intended next step in the Quatermass series: “Well, no one can say the customers won’t have had their money’s worth by now. In fact, someone will almost certainly have been sick.

We must have a great deal more restraint, and much more done by onlookers’ reactions instead of by shots of ‘pulsating obscenity’, hideous scars, hideous sightless faces, etc, etc.

It is keeping on and on in the same vein that makes this script so outrageous. They must take it away and prune. Before they take it away, however, I think the President [of the BBFC] should read it. I have a stronger stomach than the average (for viewing purposes) and perhaps I ought to be reacting more strongly.” She would have had a fit had she known what would come next…

CREATURE FEATURES

The late 1950s saw the release of the first wave of the sort of films most fans associate with the studio – ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, starring Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his monstrous creation, hitting cinemas in 1957, followed quickly by a sequel in shape of ‘The Revenge Of Frankenstein’.

Clearly the public was hungry for more, and Cushing and Lee (plus composer James Bernard’s eerie music) were soon appearing in 1958’s ‘Dracula’, Lee in the title role as the bloodsucking count and Cushing as vampire hunter Van Helsing. Just a year later they were back in the first film of another retrospectively popular franchise – ‘The Mummy’, (though Bernard had been replaced with German composer Franz Reizenstein) with Lee spending hours in make-up once again for the role of Kharis, a mummified Ancient Egyptian high priest, Cushing portraying his intended victim, archaeologist John Banning.

These three massively successful series spawned 17 sequels between them across a period from 1959–1974, a success rate that the ‘new’ Hammer, resurrected as of 2007, will be looking to replicate, ‘Let Me In’ and
‘The Woman In Black’ (starring Daniel Radcliffe) a good start since their rise from beyond the grave.

Written by Chris Morley