Hammer Film Productions: The Colossus of Sprawling Terror

Denis Meikle
Denis Meikle

Hammer’s Christmas 1954 communiqué to the trades had promised a total of seven colour features and eight CinemaScope shorts, but the hard-times year of 1955 saw the company produce not much more than the latter, on a borrowed lens, while the industry, in general, waited for the coup de grâce that many felt certain would inevitably be delivered by September 22nd inauguration of commercial television.

The once-mighty Ealing Studios, bastion of British film production, had already given up the ghost (its new owner would be the BBC), so Bray had been busily turning its facilities and personnel to other things.

In place of the promised features, the studios had been leased out to anyone brave enough to venture into production, though there were few of them. The technicians’ union ACTT had done its bit by backing Stolen Assignment, which had made use of Bray (and Terence Fisher) before The Errol Flynn Theatre stepped in to save the day by occupying its limited stages for a six-month stint.

Camera operator Len Harris had found himself dispatched to do piecework for television (such as shooting variety acts at the Adelphi Theatre for Jack Hylton Presents), while others on the permanent staff of sixty-eight had been subcontracted to the likes of the Danzigers.

As Hammer waited for a sign, Michael Carreras was able to indulge his passion for big bands and big stages by filming Cyril Stapleton and the Show Band, the first of six musical shorts in Scope, at the Horticultural Halls in Victoria (the remainder were filmed at Elstree). But colour and Scope were also to be used for a pair of shorts of a less frivolous nature, as both of Hammer’s house producers were forced to mark time.

Following the pattern set by ‘The Men of Sherwood Forest’, Michael opted for the lighthearted escapism of ‘Dick Turpin: Highwayman’, but Tony Hinds chose to try out the format on a thriller subject — ‘A Man on the Beach’. A surplus of film stock allowed the eight announced shorts to be expanded to ten, and a quick trip to Denmark produced Copenhagen, as well as providing some location footage (and the backdrop) for ‘The Right Person’.

In the uncertain climate, even the success of ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ would not be enough to convince James Carreras to put all Hammer’s eggs into one basket, and this scattergun approach was to remain the order of the day until something much more tangible than Les Bowie’s glass-painted spaceship appeared on the horizon.

The release of Xperiment was timed to cash in on prepublicity for the BBC’s sequel to the original serial: ‘Quatermass II’ (the first episode of which was broadcast on October 22nd). With the character once more fresh in the public mind, returns from the new Exclusive release were nothing short of spectacular.

When it came due for a circuit booking in November through Associated British Cinemas (ABC), its nominal West End support — ‘The Eric Winstone Band Show’ —was waived in favor of the obligatory second feature, which, because of the limited number of “X” certificate films in distribution, turned out to be Jules Dassin’s acclaimed ‘Rififi’, a French “caper” movie that had received rave notices due to a nail-biting robbery sequence.

The publicity material issued to theatre managers suggested that they should headline their newspaper ads with slogans such as “Engulfs you in a limbo of terror!” and “Colossus of sprawling terror!” The combination of the two films saw Hammer’s fortunes firmly on the up again by Christmas.

With the science-fiction boom in full swing at the end of 1955, Bob Lippert had gotten Columbia interested in distributing ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ in the States. Judging the film to be in competition with its own It ‘Came from Beneath the Sea’ (which was turning into the biggest sci-fi hit of the year), however, the studio ultimately deferred its decision.

Lippert retitled the film ‘Shock!’, but still there were no takers. He finally settled on ‘The Creeping Unknown’ as the moniker most likely to appeal to American teen audiences, and early in 1956, ‘The Creeping Unknown’ was taken up by United Artists; according to Variety’s report of March 28, Lippert was paid a flat fee of $125,000 for the rights.

United Artists lopped four minutes off the running time of the film and opened it in June with ‘The Black Sleep’, a tired Gothic potboiler that traded on the ageing talents of Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. The billing was so successful that United Artists not only wanted a sequel but offered to partially fund it as well and double Hammer’s modest budget for Xperiment in the process!

For Hammer and Bray, a slow death had narrowly been avoided. The next step was speedily to exploit what had become a solo success for the company that had only been formed as an outgrowth of Exclusive in the first instance. For Hammer’s ageing parent, ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ was to mark the beginning of the end. Exclusive had found itself in the shadow of something much more exciting and potentially more profitable, and nothing at 113 Wardour Street was ever going to be quite the same again.

At Bray, schedules were reshuffled to make way for another stab in the direction of a feature that even the New Statesman had been moved to concede was “a better film than either ‘The War of the Worlds or Them!’” Having wiped the slate clean of every project that had been announced for 1955–1956, Hinds readied his next full-blown science-fiction opus with the formula precisely as before, even to the extent of using the highly marketable “X” factor for a second time around. The result was to be ‘X the Unknown’.

Visions of horrors were exactly what Hammer was now intent on conjuring up but, bankrupt of original source material for an encore to Quatermass, Hinds turned to the apprentice screenwriting talents of one of his own.

Jimmy Sangster had been working his way up through the ranks at Hammer and been alternating assistant director duties with those of production manager. He had always nurtured a desire to be more creatively involved (though he himself would put a different perspective on it: “I figured writing had to be a nice easy way of making a living if you could do it”), and he had already submitted one treatment with the encouragement of Tony Hinds.

But the cutback in production during 1955 had afforded the twenty-seven-year-old his first real crack at what would soon prove to be his forte. For the usual reasons of economy, Sangster had been allowed to adapt the Victor Canning short story ‘A Man on the Beach’ for American director Joseph Losey, who was now working in Britain as a result of the persecution of left-wing sympathizers in the United States by Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

To cash in on Xperiment, what Hammer needed was a variation on Nigel Kneale’s theme of an extraterrestrial invader. Unhappy with Brian Donlevy’s performance as Quatermass in the film version, however, Kneale had refused Hammer permission to reuse the name of his professor and, with time at a premium, Hinds asked Sangster if he could come up with something.

The young production manager took it literally and, with the ingenuity that subsequently was to become his trademark, he created the screen’s first ultraterrestrial threat, in the form of living magma that disgorges itself from the Earth’s molten core.

Sangster mixed the requisite ingredients with an aplomb that largely belied his novitiate status, and his script for ‘X the Unknown’ engineered a surprisingly effective addition to the monster-on-the-loose cycle begun by ‘The Thing from Another World’ (1951) and would serve as the prototype for ‘The Blob’ (1958).

A grateful Hammer rewarded his initiative with a princely £750 for providing story and screenplay, which was sufficient to enable him to whisk his wife and child from Seymour Place in Marylebone to the greener pastures of a brand-new house at Ascot.

On this occasion, the obligatory American presence would be furnished by Dean Jagger, a Hollywood veteran whose career dated back to 1929 but who had appeared in the company of Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan as recently as 1954 in ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’, and with Ida Lupino and Steve Cochran in the Exclusive release ‘Private Hell 36’.

In support would be a trusty band of contract stalwarts and some newer faces from television. Edward Chapman’s career went back to ‘Things to Come’ (1936) — he was soon to foil for Norman Wisdom — and John Harvey was a long-time friend of producer Hinds.

On the other side of the coin, William Lucas was making a name for himself on the small screen, and ex-child actor Anthony Newley was about to do the same in the Top Twenty (his two days of work on the film would earn him £100).

Ironically, it was to be the presence of the other American in the lineup which would hint that Hammer’s transatlantic dealings were not to be as smooth in the future as they had been in the past.

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