There is one thing that will always be obvious about a book about the Hammer Films studio that it will be a finite book. There is a start and an end and, to be honest, no real resurrection, vampire blood or not of the studio. As such, any book on the subject will be of value irrespective of when it was released. This one was released in 1994 and at the right time to get an introduction from actor Peter Cushing before he died. In other introductions, the authors name both actors and production team who supplied information for this book. Hammer Films not only produced horror films but as any British film buff will point out, they had more than a healthy finger in every genre to make money.
Don’t think this book mirrors other books in terms of having credits and a brief synopsis. The latter tends to be extensive with extra detail from tracking information down and even the odd mini-interview. If you thought you could watch everything Hammer ever released, you would be in for a disappointment. Back in the 1940s, several were made to fulfil the British 30% quota and lost to time now but as much as possible, information about them is given. I suspect that although they might not have been very good, they would have given a fledgling company much needed experience which might have contributed to the family feeling all people involved in later productions with them felt.
Picking out details of note it always fun. I’ll highlight some of mine but I bet you’ll find a lot you didn’t know.
Bela Lugosi starred in Hammer’s second ever film, ‘The Mystery Of The Mary Celeste’ (1936). Supporting actor Michael Ripper’s first film for them was ‘The Dark Road’ (1948). For those of you who remember Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian in ‘Doctor Who’, in his youth he appeared in several Hammer features starting with ‘Dr. Morelle – The Case Of The Missing Heiress’ (1949). Indeed, it became something to note actor Roger Delgado in ‘Third Party Risk’ (1955). Likewise, if you’re wondering what actor Peter Dyneley did before he voiced Jeff Tracy in ‘Thunderbirds’ then watch out for ‘Third Party Risk’ (1955) as he also appeared in a Hammer film..
Before Sid James went onto being know for comedy, he was in seven Hammer films with the first being ‘The Man In Black’ (1950). Their first Anglo-American film was ‘Cloudburst’ (1951) with American actor Robert Preston in the lead. Actress Diana Dors also starred in a few Hammer films starting with ‘The Last Page’ (1952). Having American actors starring in films guaranteed sales to America and this continued with the likes of Caesar Romero, Howard Duff, Lloyd Bridges and Forrest Tucker, amongst others. Indeed, ‘The Abominable Snowman’ (1957) was their second horror film. As is pointed out by director Val Guest, there was a list of American actors who were available that they could choose from and ensured a sale across the pond.
In some respects, I wish there were similar books covering specific other film studios at the time. Seeing Hammer’s early films not setting the world on fire in isolation gives no indication how well the other studios were doing in comparison. I’ve commented in the past that creative work often has less to do with talent than the ability to survive and the rise of Hammer is based largely on that.
‘The Four-Sided Triangle’ (1953) is Hammer’s earliest SF film where a woman is duplicated, long before the term ‘clone’ was known. Their first space film ‘Spaceways’ (1952) was also released in the same year. Looking at the photo from the film where two actors are in front of an impressive painting of a space rocket, the text reveals it wasn’t given enough budget. Not all films from the 50s were in black and white and the first one in colour from Hammer was ‘Men Of Sherwood Forest’ (1954).
If you were wondering how many pages it takes reading before recognising films you might have seen, then got to page 108 and ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (1955), although the US poster turns the alien into a bit of a dog. Have I said that the text of his book is in double columns yet? It makes for a long read.
Seeing the films in chronological order shows how crucial 1957-58 was when they released their ‘Curse Of Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ films and surprised themselves with their own popularity. Considering that horror films had died the death in the USA, it just needed a spark to get them going again. In many respects, Hammer’s scattershot of genres compared to other British film companies, meant it was only a matter of time before they tackled our genre. From my perspective, people like to be scared so would be drawn to anything of that nature and for those who had television at the time, would certainly not have seen it on the box in the corner.
I wonder how many people knew that Barbara Wodehouse supplied one of the pair of dogs for ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’ (1958) and his mask was made of rabbit skin? They didn’t discover Peter Cushing, who was already a star on television. However, in the film shorts they did and covered at the back of the book, it appears that they gave Christopher Lee a part in ‘The Mirror And Markheim’ (1954).
‘The Mummy’ (1959) was their first horror film in colour. Oliver Reed had a bit part in ‘The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll’ (1960) and a couple other films before starring in ‘The Curse Of The Werewolf’ (1961). His final film for them was ‘The Brigand Of Kandahar’ (1965).
One thing that I did find interesting was that although both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were crowd-pullers, Lee in many films was actually often fourth lead in many of the non-horror films Hammer did, contrary to the posters’ depictions. I also didn’t realise that Lee was cousin to the author Ian Fleming.
While reading, I started thinking about what was the last Hammer film I saw on TV recently. There hasn’t been many but ‘Taste Of Fear’ was one I saw a couple years back and more recently, The Lady Vanishes’ (1978). It’s problematic that whenever there’s a Hammer season on the box, there is so much devotion to the horror films. As much as I like them, as more the historian and from reading this book, I would love to see more of their other work, especially the psychological horror films which they also excelled at. I did a little cross-checking during the reading of this book and a lot of their none horror material is actually out there on DVD if you know where to look.
This book complements the two Tomahawk Press Hammer books I reviewed last year, so I referenced the galleon they built and lost in a fire. If you want to see the vessel itself, then check out ‘Devil-Ship Pirates’ (1963).
‘She’ (1964) was the first of Hammer’s big budget films. Although I agree with the assessment that they weren’t organised to create such big films, if anything Hammer were prepared to try anything and you have to laud that.
It’s rather weird that although voodoo has been used in several Hammer films, it wasn’t until 1965 with ‘The Plague Of Zombies’ that they dealt with this horror icon.
Just in case you didn’t know, ‘One Million Years BC’ (1965) featured the animation work of the late great Ray Harryhausen and made a star of Raquel Welch. Oddly, one of its successors, ‘When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth’ (1968) got animator Jim Danworth an Oscar nomination, despite the problems he had on production. It’s understandable why Harryhausen went out with the live-action crew to ensure he got what was needed for his animation,
By 1970s, I was old enough to pass and pay as an adult so saw some of the latter Hammer films in the cinema as they came out. I still have a soft spot for ‘Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb’ (1971), although I think I saw that one in its second release (those were the days, how often does that happen today?) and ‘Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde’ (1974) is still one of my favourites for its ingenuity and blending in Jack the Ripper and the bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare, even if they were in Edinburgh not London. As this is a book written by Americans, I don’t think they really comprehend the English market for TV series adapted to films. Hammer wasn’t the only one to do this and many households, including my own, didn’t have a colour television until several years later. Seeing such films back then just added a different level to watching. Not necessarily all good but there’s a different understanding for being there. Oddly, the only real mistake in the book was calling Jack in ‘Mutiny On The Buses’ (1972) a driver when he was a conductor. About the only other error I spotted was called actor Ray Lonnen ‘Roy Lonnen’ in the TV story ‘Guardian Of The Abyss’ (1981). Considering how little information is available for the likes of ‘Journey Into The Unknown’ (1968-69) and still not available on DVD, I wish they had covered Hammer’s TV work in more detail than they did.
What is often forgotten about the British home market is that the studios didn’t really have the budget to compete with the American films and ultimately their downfall, Hammer included. This is still pretty much true today as well, hence our strengths tend to come from period dramas or even modern dramas where the Americans don’t do as many. Indeed, when the Americans returned to horror films with bigger budgets, Hammer didn’t really have a chance.
Something that I wish was done was the American title put beneath the UK title. Granted, the index can place names to films, but you would still need to know the names to seek them out. I should point out that the American title is on the last part of the credits but you would have to be data trawler to spot them all. If anything, it’s a little disconcerting having the American poster on the page and having to wonder why initially it was put there.
Although it would undoubtedly add to the cost, it’s a shame that those various posters and photos that were available in colour were only shown in black and white but that’s only a minor criticism. Most aren’t tiny pictures but often fill pages.
As you can tell by the extensive information in this review, I’ve certainly re-built my knowledge of Hammer Films. I’ve only really touched on their horror and SF material, mostly because it’s something that I was already familiar with and what genre we specialise in. Having access to what else they did before they focused on horror made for much enlightenment. This is a great reference book which I’m sure you’ll want to add to your collection.
(pub: McFarland. 410 page black and white illustrated indexed medium softcover. Price: £22.95 (UK), $37.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-6922-2)
check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com