An Introduction to London’s Based Hammer Film Productions

Denis Meikle
Denis Meikle

For some of those involved, Hammer Film Productions’s dedication to “terror and disgust” (as the dictionary defines horror) was never acknowledged as such. Peter Cushing: “I do not like the word horror; I think fantasy is a much better word.” Christopher Lee: “I prefer to call them ‘films of fantasy’ — particularly the ones I have made.” Director Terence Fisher: “I object to my films being called ‘horror pictures.’ I prefer my work to be known as macabre.” But the public thought differently. They were not concerned with such fine distinctions. To them, Hammer Film Productions made horror films, pure and simple. And so, for twenty-one years, horror was to be Hammer Film Productions’s stock-in-trade.

In that time, the company produced more than sixty features tailored for or sold to the horror-thriller market. Of these, the majority were set in a dislocated but quintessentially Victorian Gothic hinterland: hybrid period pieces that more or less evolved a distinctive generic style of their own.

The first of them was ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’. That it marked a watershed — perhaps the watershed in the history of the horror film — is now beyond dispute, but the stylistic unity they all shared would come to be appreciated the world over and designated by the eponymous sobriquet of “Hammer Horror.”

In terms of a body of work being so identified with one company or individual that the two become entirely indivisible, only the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock have been the recipients of a similar accolade.

Critics of the time hated everything that Hammer Film Productions did and stood for. When it introduced blood into its films, they complained about the blood; when it introduced sex, they complained about the sex.

And when — unpalatably — it mixed the two, then the end of civilization as we knew it was deemed to be at hand. It was the same reaction that greeted Matthew Gregory Lewis’s Gothic splatter-piece ‘The Monk’ some 160 years before.

Despite this, Hammer Film Productions’s would grow to be one of the most successful British film companies of its day, be the first to receive the Queen’s Award to Industry, become the subject of numerous retrospectives — including a 1971 “Tribute” at London’s National Film Theatre — sire countless international fan clubs, and foster a devotional following around the globe.

It would live to take its rightful place second only to Ealing in the ranks of the great postwar British independents, while its legacy continues to be felt in everything from the recent BBC Television revival of its sci-fi series Doctor Who to stop-motion studio Aardman Animation’s affectionate 2005 feature-length homage, ‘Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’.

As for myself, I grew up with Hammer Film Productions. Not in the way that I grew up with the Beatles, or “flower power,” or Old Labour in its Wilsonian heyday — not in the way that such broader cultural upheavals affect one’s character, or social or sexual development, or perceptions of the changing world — but in the way that Hammer Film productions’s films were an almost integral part of my everyday sphere of existence, like the “funny papers” in the Daily Express that introduced James Bond to a wider readership, and the musical conservatism of the Light Programme, and the cultural stranglehold of the British Broadcasting Corporation in general.

It was just there, as though it had always been there — and yet Hammer Film Productions had been born, officially, in the same year as I: 1947. It took its first stumbling steps when I did, learned the way of things when I did, reached puberty as I did, spread its wings and reached out to embrace the world in the mid-sixties as all we “baby-boomers” did — only to be disillusioned and disenfranchised a decade later, as I was.

I grew up with Hammer Film Productions, and Hammer Film Productions grew up with me — though Hammer Film Productions was aware of that in less personal terms: I was merely one of the juvenile audience for its B-movie crime capers, from ‘Break in the Circle’ to ‘A Man on the Beach’. I was the pubescent who had discovered Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton, and who turned to Hammer Film Productions to see the former, at least, realized in Technicolor on the big screen.

I was the adolescent thrillseeker who sneaked surreptitiously into its “X”-rated examples of a new artistic freedom. I was the teenage pleasure-seeker who fed off its big-budget extravaganzas. And I was the wiser and sadder young adult who ultimately left it behind, when the relationship grew tired, and stale, and habitual — when Hammer Film Productions itself had begun to think that simply “being there” was enough. I grew up with Hammer Film Productions, and it with me. And a first love remains in the memory always, with affection, and a modicum of bitter-sweet nostalgia. Thus, in the end, this memento — this collective reminiscence — of gilded youth: my own, and that of the British horror film in bloom.

First, a word about the British Board of Film Censors (as it was called during Hammer Film Productions’s period of operations). Since this book was published in 1996, examining, for the first time, Hammer Film Productions’s relationship with the BBFC in some detail, much has been expanded upon elsewhere about the company’s often fraught dealings with the Board.

Indeed, it would be true to say that had it not been for the many and various interventions of Board secretaries (notably John Trevelyan, who joined in 1951 after a career in education), Hammer Film Productions’s product — perhaps even its entire history — might have turned out very differently.

However, it is all too easy at this remove, and with lack of context, to view the demands made upon Hammer Film Productions by the BBFC as archaic — arcane, even, when it came to the application of particular principles of censorship. But it should be remembered that at a time of unprecedented liberalization of the arts, the BBFC was acting, for the most part, to stave off what it perceived to be the potential for outrage in certain sectors of British society.

Such outrage was manifested against other areas of the arts during the 1960s, and had the Board not acted in the way that it did — mediating between the outraged and the studios and deflecting the push for censure — legislation almost certainly would have been introduced to stem the excesses of horror film producers.

The desire on the part of some to bring films into the remit of the Obscene Publications Act (1959) was real and permanently threatening; only the Board stood between the crude commercial interests of filmmakers and the prospect of legal control over the medium. (Such legislation was subsequently enacted against films on videocassette in 1984, more than two decades after Hammer’s most significant confrontations with the British censor.)

This is not to say that the actions, or attitudes, of the BBFC in relation to Hammer Film Productions were at all times altruistic — to the contrary, they often betrayed the same narrow-minded prejudices from which invariably it was at pains to protect the industry.

And while it would profess to keep pace with changes in public opinion, it could be as guilty as any other reactionary element of society of actively delaying the progress of such change. It was, like Hammer Film Productions itself, subject to the whims and tastes of its own employees — “examiners,” in the Board’s case — and the very act of creation of a censor board is always something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: notionally censorable material then has to be found or its very existence can be called into question.

For all that, and while the prohibitions placed on Hammer Film Production by the BBFC might seem curious (if not downright inexplicable) to those who have grown up with the “anything goes” attitude of the horror film producers of today, the fact remains that much of what Hammer Film Productions sought to introduce into its films in the fifties and sixties, in terms of themes, plot points, and individual sequences and shots, was simply unacceptable in the climate of the times.

It is fallacious to imagine that had it not been for the BBFC, Hammer Film Productions’s horrors might have taken on stronger form. The opposite is the case: they might have taken no form at all — instead, they might have been legislated out of existence, and the courts would have become the final arbiters of what was and was not fit for British screens.

No one who lived through this turbulent time for the arts, in general, would have considered that the preferable alternative. As to the idea that America, in the same period, took a more liberal view of Hammer Film Productions’s output — the truth is that the films were cut every bit as drastically in the United States of America as they were in Britain; they were different cuts, is all.

The cinema of Hammer Film Productions was one of castles and crypts, of blushing virgins and blood-lusting vampires, of fanatical scientists and rapacious aristocrats, of ascetic savants, and of vengeful spirits from beyond the grave.

It was a cinema rich in opulent décor and steeped in romantic extravagance, and it lay in direct line of descent from the literary tradition established by the more morbid fancies of Horace Walpole, Charles Dickens, and M. R. James. From Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’ (1860) to Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’ (1986), the wheel turns full circle. Yet despite a total of 157 feature films and a Queen’s Award to Industry to its credit, no full-length biography of the ‘House that Horror Built’ existed before this one.

In its original form, this chronicle aimed to correct that omission and, in so doing, to provide insight into a thematic collective which has proved to be both unique in British cinema and singularly influential on fantasy cinema throughout the world.

Now in this greatly expanded revision, much information has been appended that was unavailable to me in 1996, some small errors of fact have been corrected, and the text as a whole has been liberally seasoned with further revealing details about the company’s colourful history.

All of this adds weight to the claim in the first edition that what follows is the untold story of the modern Prometheans who brought “Hammer Horror” into being.

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