How could we conduct a Halloween Countdown without mentioning the British studio at the heart of horror, Hammer. But, with so many films to choose from, where do you start? The following recommendations focus on a small selection of my personal favourites during the studios golden years (1957-1972). These recommendations celebrate the genius of Terrance Fisher, the iconic performances of Cushing and Lee, and the innovation of a studio always seeking to find a new audience.
Founded in 1934, Hammer’s diversity is legendary. Hammer would find its voice as a horror studio in 1955 with the black and white The Quatermass Xperiment. However, it was not until 1957 that Hammer would embrace the trademark Victorian gothic horror and the 1930s Universal monsters that made it famous.
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Hammer’s first colour horror movie came in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Here, Hammer embraced the world of Universal’s 1930s horror pictures while bathing the stories in a uniquely British charm, rich colour and lavish sets. With The Curse of Frankenstein, director Terrence Fisher would create the template for hammer horror. His visual style, embracing a theatrical gothic aesthetic while rejecting a slowly emerging British cinematic trend toward the kitchen sink drama. Therefore, for me, The Curse of Frankenstein will always be the best place to start your Hammer horror journey.
As a director, Terrance Fisher took classic literature and set it free on-screen, consequently allowing each character to travel beyond the literary roots of their creation. For example, my following two recommendations, 1958s Dracula and 1961s Curse of the Werewolf, are clear examples of Hammer allowing horror icons to break free of their chains. Both stories are rooted in classic literature and monster horror but are equally free to embellish and innovate. Meanwhile, my third recommendation shows Hammer’s ability to adapt classic literature while injecting new layers of horror. Here their 1959 adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles built upon the stark imagery of the 1939 film while ensuring the hound reflected the gothic horror of the classic monster movie.
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My next recommendation comes from 1968. Ask anyone where the late sixties and seventies obsession with occult horror started, and they are bound to point to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. However, Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (1968) was released the same year as Polanski’s film and deserved more credit for launching the occult horror trend. Here Hammer replaced the trademark gothic horror of its previous films with satanism in a sleepy rural English village. The result allowed the fantastic Charles Gray and Christopher Lee, to shine in a film that stands proudly at the alter of Hammer’s best work.
My final two recommendations are Fear the Night and Straight on Till Morning (1972). By the early seventies, Hammer was struggling to find a new audience, and as a result, they attempted to embrace new ideas within the realm of psychological horror and realism. During this period of decline, two movies stand out as testaments to Hammer’s creativity and willingness to take a risk in redefining itself. Fear the Night would see Cushing take centre stage in a light yet brilliantly thrilling slice of psychological horror. One that played with audience preconceptions through atmospheric sound and a prowling camera.
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Meanwhile, Straight on Till Morning, directed by Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), would finally embrace the kitchen sink movement in British cinema. Its brilliance held in its left-field 70s experimentation. And while rarely discussed as a stand out Hammer horror, Straight on Till Morning still has the power to shock, as a truly underrated and brave example of a studio willing to take a risk.
With a back catalogue full of riches, the power and creativity of Hammer’s horror films have stood the test of time. And while many of its movies appear tame to a younger generation brought up on slasher gore, they remain some of the best Halloween pictures out there.