Hammer Film Productions in a Bookish Reciprocity

Morgan Clark O’Brien

Morgan Clark O’Brien

David Pirie was the first critic to positively engage with Hammer Film Productions on a scholarly level, which aligns with the studio era. David Pirie saw Hammer Film Productions operating as a mini-major in a dilution of the early Hollywood mode of production.

In his book-length study of British horror, David Pirie contends that: “[…] perhaps the most obvious analogy is with one of the small Hollywood studios of the 1930s and forties [sic] like Republic or Monogram; for almost overnight Hammer Film Productions became a highly efficient factory for a vast series of exploitation pictures made on tight budgets with a repertory company of actors and a small Buckinghamshire estate. […] Unlike so many other companies, they established a consistent ‘B’ feature pattern whereby the credits changed only a fraction from film to film, with perhaps one variable factor, script or direction or camera, among the constants. This makes it much easier to assess who is responsible for what elements in their output and a study of the films should reveal quite a lot about the basic process of commercial film-making in this country and about how far one can apply the auteur theory in the context of British cinema.”

The auteur theory was still being codified in the seventies, and seeing critically derided Hammer Film Productions director Terence Fisher as the hand that shaped the studios’ Gothic aesthetic, David Pirie was keen to be the first to resituate Terence Fisher as an auteur.

To assert Terence Fisher’s status as an artist, David Pirie uses the incipient auteur theories of Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen, arguing that the classic tenets of auteurism are enough to establish Terence Fisher’s auteurist credentials.

While it is true that Terence Fisher’s first two horror films established Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic horror style, David Pirie’s insight provides a built-in form of circular reasoning to the argument for classifying Terence Fisher, or any Hammer Film Productions filmmaker, as the sole artistic visionary behind a cinematic work. Namely, David Pirie flaunts Aristotle’s principle of noncontradiction by suggesting Terence Fisher be held solely responsible for a cinematic product after repeatedly crediting Hammer Film Productions as a “repertory” company where everyone involved in production plays a vital part. Nevertheless, David Pirie’s call for authorship study of Hammer Film Productions itself is pertinent.

Underpinning David Pirie’s work is the assumption that Hammer Film Productions created a recognizable, distinctive house style. Adapting films from classical British and Irish Gothic and Romantic literature meant that Hammer Film Productions used British cultural history to provide a template for a sustainable business model (albeit one that hinged on American funding and distribution). However, to date, there exists no critical investigation into the exact Gothic form Hammer Film Productions took, or if and how the style varied from film to film.

A thorough informal analysis of Hammer Film Productions should explicitly examine the Gothic mode’s marked visual style and narrative structuring. Some writers have incorporated brief, incomplete formal analysis into their research but only to highlight Hammer Film Productions’ engagement with British cultural relics or to argue for Terence Fisher as auteur.

While it may be impossible to categorically attribute authorship to any one individual who worked at the Hammer Film Productions studio, it is possible to codify the Gothic films to understand how they function, how they differ from previous horror cycles and elucidate the causal relationship they share with the company’s fate.

In her recent article, ‘Beyond the Forest: Terence Fisher and Transylvania,’ film historian Sue Harper has valuably pointed to Terence Fisher’s Transylvanian-set Gothic films as consistently representing a distinct European topos, specific to no real time or location. These pan-European spaces, Sue Harper argues, create amorphous, romanticized locales for British cultural fantasies and archetypes to play out and dwell within.

While recognizing the studio-based industrial structures of Terence Fisher’s directorial career, Sue Harper attributes most of the creative insight to Terence Fisher but also extends credit to Hammer Film Productions designer Bernard Robinson. Also, decades after David Pirie’s initial study, film scholars Wheeler Winston Dixon and Peter Hutchings penned book-length studies on Terence Fisher in separate attempts to negotiate his entire career.

More concerned with how filmmakers affect studio product, Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote a book solely dedicated to Terence Fisher, ‘The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher,’ and composed a separate, shorter piece detailing cinematographer and Hammer Film Productions house director Frederick William Francis’ working life, titled ‘The Films of Freddie Francis.’ Where Wheeler Winston Dixon focuses on individual directors, Peter Hutchings wrote ‘Terence Fisher,’ but only after ‘Hammer and Beyond, The British Horror Film’ a text that attempts to situate Hammer Film Productions within the overall context of British horror cinema history.

In the latter piece, Peter Hutchings contends that while British horror does not represent reality per se, it does equivocally draw upon moments and concerns in social history to furnish horror narratives with themes relevant to contemporary audiences.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s writing follows a more direct auteurist bend in comparing Terence Fisher to John Ford. He compares the two filmmakers and how their cinematic subjects contemplate national myth and cultural memory through genre — for Terence Fisher the British Gothic, to john Ford the American Western.

In ‘Terence Fisher,’ Peter Hutchings looks to the socio cultural themes of Terence Fisher’s, and by extension Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic movies. Hutchings expands his Terence Fisher project by meshing his observations with a psychoanalytical framework when discussing British horror at large. In ‘Hammer’s and Beyond: The British Horror Film,’ Peter Hutchings suggests Terence Fisher furnished Hammer Film Productions Gothic with a stable set of heteronormative values, operating around a patriarchal core that uses oedipal tropes to structure narrative events.

Midway between theory and popular journalism, Sinclair McKay’s book, ‘A Thing of Unspeakable Horror,’ provides a more recent historical overview of Hammer Film Productions while subjectively aligning itself with Peter Hutchings’ understanding that horror films by-and-large reflect a society’s broader cultural trends.

Sinclair McKay fails to provide a film or period-specific examples, but he does list thirteen Hammer Film Productions “leitmotifs” in his opening chapter, ‘What is a Hammer film?.’ Sinclair McKay describes various recurring stylistic affectations from Hammer Film Productions Gothic fare, such as: “Christopher [Frank Carandini] Lee’s blood-red contact lenses [and] Gobbets of blood with an occasional milkshake-like texture.”

While his tone is semi-comedic, Sinclair McKay recognizes that Hammer Film Productions’ brand of horror is distinct but never quite bridges the gap between stylistic analysis and studio history.

More explicitly historiographic in nature, Denis Meikle’s well-researched book, ‘A History of Horrors,’ provides a detailed corporate account of the entire span of Hammer Film Productions’ existence. Although he contributes personal opinions of select films, Denis Meikle avoids overt formal or cultural analyses and instead focuses on the industrial and personal histories of Hammer Film Productions’ staff, collaborators, and business partners.

In pursuing such a tack, Denis Meikle provides prudent personal histories of company executives Sir James Carreras and Anthony Frank Hinds, their relationships with other companies, the censors, and their contributions to Hammer Film Productions’ various projects. In so doing, Denis Meikle underscores the general “studio system” approach of Hammer Film Productions without engaging with or detracting from the artistry of the films themselves.

Another survey of Hammer Film Productions’ history, ‘Hammer, House of Horror,’ focuses almost exclusively on the films to create a historical narrative for the studio.

Howard Maxford’s book demonstrates the breadth of Hammer Film Productions’ genre output by moving chronologically through each of its releases, providing perfunctory plot summaries and brief industrial contexts for each.

Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio’s ‘Hammer Films, An Exhaustive Filmography’ provides a similar film-centric account, including plot summaries and production credits for every Hammer Film Productions release. Providing brief overviews of each film’s critical reception garnered from newspaper and fanzine clippings, Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio’s meticulously researched book combines a subjective response to Hammer Film Productions releases with their objective production data to show how they were received by their original release dates.

Through these various historical accounts of Hammer Film Productions studios, a bigger picture emerges — one of Hammer Film Productions as a British cultural institution.

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