Hammer Horror

Hammer Horror: a collection of recommendations from the British House of Horror

The Halloween Countdown Day 10

One British studio sat at the heart of horror for over a decade, Hammer. But, with so many Hammer movies to choose from, where do you start? The following recommendations represent a small selection of Hammer’s output but are also some of the best from the studio’s golden years (1957-1972). These recommendations celebrate the genius of Terrance Fisher, the iconic performances of Cushing and Lee, and the innovative spark of a studio always seeking a new audience.

Founded in 1934, Hammer wouldn’t find its voice as a horror studio until 1955 with the black and white science fiction gem The Quatermass Xperiment. Shortly after, in 1957, Hammer released its first colour horror movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, a seminal film in Hammer’s history and the first of my recommendations. The Curse of Frankenstein would embrace the monster horror model established by Universal in the 1930s and 40s while injecting a uniquely British charm through rich colour, lavish sets, tongue-in-cheek humour and Shakespearian performances. Director Terrence Fisher created the Hammer template for horror through The Curse of Frankenstein, and for that reason, this film holds a significant place in cinematic history. But beyond its role in building the Hammer empire, The Curse of Frankenstein revitalised interest in gothic horror and classic adaptations, firing the starting gun on a brand new era. Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein thrives on his calculated determination and moral ambiguity, while Christopher Lee’s performance as the Monster captures the tragic isolation and internal conflict of Shelley’s literary creation.

Terrance Fisher would embrace classic literature while allowing each character to travel beyond their literary roots, and this was never more apparent than in Dracula, 1958. On first appearance, Terrance Fisher’s Dracula would appear to be the quintessential representation of Bram Stoker’s legendary Count, but Fisher allowed Christopher Lee to ditch the debonair vampire in favour of a more sexual and animalistic predator. Lee’s Count Dracula would become iconic, influencing multiple subsequent portrayals of the character as Fisher experimented with the horror genre’s links to sex and sexuality.

Next up is the underrated Oliver Reed classic Curse of the Werewolf from 1961. Fisher’s take on the werewolf story may be one of the finest examples of his ability to take classic horror and break the chains constraining the characters. Curse of the Werewolf takes some of the standard werewolf tropes while equally tearing up the rulebook. Unlike other films that often portrayed a transformation resulting from a wolf bite, Fisher introduced a more intricate origin story involving an unavoidable and ancient curse. This departure allowed Curse of the Werewolf to dovetail folklore with a far more tragic love story.

Ask anyone where the late sixties and seventies obsession with the occult started, and many will point to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. However, I believe Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (1968), released the same year as Polanski’s film, truly lit the spark. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out is a masterpiece of occult horror, supernatural terror, suspense, and mysticism. Here Hammer would veer away from its trademark gothic horror with a tale of occultism and intrigue in a sleepy rural English village, allowing Charles Gray and Christopher Lee to captivate audiences with performances that sit proudly on the altar of Hammer’s best work.

My final two recommendations come from 1972, as Hammer attempted to redefine its role as Britain’s horror powerhouse. Both films represent the conflict at the heart of a studio trying to keep one foot in the past while tentatively exploring a new future. Straight on Till Morning, directed by Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), is a lesser-known Hammer offering that embraced the psychological terror found in Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. Here Rita Tushingham plays the introverted Brenda, who leaves her small town for London in search of companionship and love. There she meets Peter (Shane Briant), a charming, enigmatic, attractive young man who plays on her desperate need for love with devastating results. Collinson’s deeply creepy film would embrace the late 60s kitchen sink movement while taking Hammer in a new direction. However, Straight on Till Morning remains one of the least discussed and appreciated films in Hammer’s catalogue, despite its continuing ability to shock through its claustrophobic atmosphere of desire, control and secrets.  

Juxtaposed to Straight on Till Morning is another 1972 gem that pays homage to Hammer’s past. Vampire Circus, directed by Robert Young, harks back to Hammer’s monster movie roots while offering us a unique vampire flick. By taking the adage, “The sins of the father shall be visited on his children”, Vampire Circus offers a horror that has one foot in the past and one firmly planted in the 70s. Vampire Circus reframes many of the ideas held in Hammer’s early films, even introducing a final boy to the equation in the form of John Moulder-Brown (Deep End), but it’s the visual treats Vampire Circus holds that make this film one of Hammer’s best. From mirror worlds to seductive travellers, the corruption of innocence and shape-shifting bats, Vampire Circus lives up to its name and lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

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