Hammer Film Productions was a prolific
, independent, British
film studio which thrived during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, producing a large number of low-budget
yet respectable cult favorites
. Specializing almost exclusively in so-called "Hammer Horror
" and "Hammer Glamour
" films, the studio was able to perfect the niche
genres it cultivated, while at the same time pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable
in motion pictures. In fact, rather than fearing the dreaded "X rating
," Hammer embraced it, using sex and violence
in often (but certainly not always) intelligent
ways, proving a market for adult-themed, non-pornographic films.
The typical Hammer movie consisted of three main components. First, there was usually an outlandish horror or science fiction plot. Second was wonderful gothic acting by minor legends such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Third (and perhaps most important to Hammer's commercial viability) was at least one undeniably beautiful woman, leaving the imprint of her volumptuous beauty and grace on every scene. Compare these traits to today's films. The bad plots of 2001 are not saved by originality or camp factor; everything is too overproduced to laugh at, so terrible plots induce sleep, not laughter. Outside of a handful of actors such as Anthony Hopkins or Geoffery Rush, few actors carry a screen presence which is remotely "distinguished". And finally, the generic actresses of today are either plastic, tanned, computer-generated, focus-group-tested, braindead Cali chickies or genuinely talented actresses who are shot, made up, and adorned to make them look much more beautiful than they actually are. The Hammer girls could barely act, but your mouth was watering at their natural beauty so much that you didn't even notice. Obviously these films were geared toward a male audience, but I know more than a few girls who would be swept up by the gothic romance and sensuality in many of the movies. Was it "serious filmmaking"? I don't know. These were popcorn and date movies, not grand epics. If any aspect of the movie remained on your mind a week after watching, it was most likely a portion of the female anatomy.
"Hammer Horror" films virtually defined the genre of gothic horror, and were usually directed in a by-the-numbers fashion by folks like Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker. First and foremost were the vampire films, usually expanding on the stories of Dracula or Carmilla. The vampire films of today are directly descended from Hammer classics such as The Horror of Dracula (1958), The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1971), Vampire Circus (1971), and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) - not to mention all the other somewhat "less inspired" works. In addition to the prerequisite blood and (especially in later films) female nudity, these flicks gently implied sadomasicism, lesbianism, incest, and necrophilia without forcing these sensitive topics on the viewer.
Then there were the Frankenstein films. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) is the film which both revived the horror genre and put Hammer on the map. The fake blood was always flowing in these cheesy Frankie pictures, but Hammer was one of the few studios that actually understood that the Frankenstein story was about the doctor, rather than the monster. Equally successful Frankie movies in Hammer's filmography are The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Frankenstein Created Woman (1965), and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), mixed in with a number of movies of lesser quality. By necessity, these movies were more gore than boobs, but proved just as substantial as the vampire work - in other words, worth a rent.
Hammer, not content without making something about every extant horror story, also created movies about classic horror topics such as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and many others. More successful were the gothic films The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), the latter of which (in some versions) offered a glimpse of Hazel Court's rear end - a rare scene at a time when nudity in cinema wasn't exactly as common or gratuitous as it is today.
Hammer also was responsible for a number of decent science fiction and adventure films, a few of which you have probably seen on Sunday afternoon TV programming without even realizing it. Some adventures were "Hammer Glamour" (a catchprase which also applied to many of the studio's better vampire films), inconsequential little movies showing off the ample busts of new starlets trying to break into the mainstream. [Few did.] Other adventures, however, were more serious efforts. The Quatermass Xperiment (1956) is one of the 50's better sci-fi flicks, an "infected astronaut" alien tale based on the British TV show. Quatermass 2 (1957 - the very first feature film sequel to be named in such a way?) and X the Unknown, a Quatermass film in all but name due to legal reasons, were equally influential. The Damned (1961 - the movie from which the seminal British punk band took their name, IIRC) has a bunch of scary, radioactive, cold-blooded kids locked up in a cave by the government! Now that's sci-fi!
The weird ancient Middle East pic She (1965) was co-produced in one of its incarnations by Hammer and MGM, finally allowing Hammer to contribute to a project with a somewhat average budget. Next up was Hammer's biggest hit, One Million Years B.C. (1967), featuring two eye-poppers: stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion dinosaurs, and Raquel Welch in a skimpy prehistoric bikini. Her famous publicity stills for this dinosaur flick launched a million masturbatory fantasies and catapulted her to instant sex symbol status. It was followed by the failed copycats When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1969) and Creatures the World Forgot (1970), the latter of which was too low-budget to even have any dinosaurs. The most exotic "creatures" in this X-rated film were naked cave-girls, led by former Miss Norway Julie Ege (who sadly remains clothed, albeit barely). If this movie were at all accurate, I would have to assume that evolution is working backwards -- humanity, once made up of beautiful cave-girls and strong cavemen, now can't even write an adventure script!
The 1970s pretty much did Hammer in. The horror genre was getting old, even though the quality of Hammer's horror films was not declining appreciably. Hammer's attempts to diversify in this time period, however, all failed. Whether it was visionary or prurient, few legitimate studios were taking more advantage of the growing acceptance of violence and nudity more than Hammer (A Clockwork Orange is the only major film from the era to equal Hammer in those regards). Nonetheless, the audience was bored. Worse, Hammer had sunk a relatively large sum of money into a sci-fi flick named Moon Zero Two (1969) which completely flopped, leaving the already poor company truly strapped for cash. Hammer's final motion picture, released in 1979, was a pointless comedic remake of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, starring Cybill Shepherd of all people. Hammer had been done with horror since 1976.
Since ceasing production, Hammer has never quite gone out of business. They've bounced around to different owners, and for a very short time produced British television shows in the early 1980s. A consortium of investors bought the remains of Hammer in 2000 and plan to revitalize the brand name, the most ambitious plan the company has had in more than 20 years. Even if Hammer lends its name to new projects, however, it's clear that the glory days of Hammer Horror are long over.