Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic Horror Narratives

Morgan Clark O’Brien

Morgan Clark O’Brien

Perpetually reincarnating Abraham Stoker and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley tales among others provided a rough generic template for later Hammer Film Productions Gothic films. These templates were hard to reshape, both formally and in the minds of consumers. In Hollywood genres, Thomas Schatz draws a convincing parallel between the makeup of film grammar and language, arguing that film narrative becomes a recognizable genre when it recalibrates familiar denotative signs into a new configuration. Thomas Schatz cites single cinematic occurrences — individual genre films — as potentially affecting the entire organizing structure from which they sprung and by which they are controlled.

This is precisely the set of circumstances Hammer Film Productions created when Terence Fisher’s movies came out in the late fifties — they altered the recognized genre landscape. Not only were the films in colour, they were also shot in widescreen and with narratives emphasizing human characters as opposed to focusing on the monster’s rampage, as the United States of America monster and Japanese Kaiju movies of the time were doing.

Hammer Film Productions’ movies were filmed in an understated way, similar to the continuity editing of studio era Hollywood. However, Hammer Film Productions directors often depicted violent acts before cutting away. Alongside blood and nudity, these tactics shocked and delighted cinema attendees while displeasing critics. Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic horror differentiated itself from traditional Hollywood fare in a manner consistent with the Russian formalist concept of defamiliarization.

In ‘Breaking the Glass Armor,’ Kristin Thompson’s landmark book delineating the merits of informal analysis, Kristin Thompson discusses the impact of defamiliarization upon art forms.

When defining the term, she quotes Russian theorist Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Thus, art represents the everyday made ‘strange,’ whether by rearranging pre-existing formal patterns or contexts or drawing deliberate attention to new or different aesthetic qualities.

Kristin Thompson asserts that if originally unfamiliar artworks are exhaustively reiterated, they become formulaic as their strangeness is lost. Artworks can eventually become familiar as they are “automatized” through industrial practices, giving rise to genre creation in the film industry.

Kristin Thompson attests that while automatization renders individual genre forms familiar to a viewer and with one another, they will never be exactly the same, as each represents reality in slightly different, stylized ways. As a result, the works most strange or different from convention seem most original.

Kristin Thompson further contends that defamiliarization allows artists to manipulate existing ideas and forms to make them seem new. Kristin Thompson’s insights into the role familiarity plays in determining the aesthetic form and taste help explain why Terence Fisher’s Gothic horror was such a milestone for Hammer Film Productions and horror cinema at large.

Initially planned as low-budget quickies, with no advertising or press media, Hammer Film Productions’ first Gothic films managed to inadvertently renegotiate the generic contract of the horror picture. By utilizing informal observations, I shall describe what form Hammer Film Productions’ defamiliarization from the classical paradigm took and how it functions as a stable storytelling template. This, in turn, will demonstrate how Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic mode entered a baroque phase towards the seventies as their own formal and stylistic process became automatized, even as different creative staff tried to update Hammer Film Productions’ genre formula.

Horror cinema has historically been a much-derided art form, regularly dismissed since its earliest iterations as low culture, yet universally popular in spite of this designation (or feasibly, because of it). In his landmark essay on society’s construction of different tastes, Pierre Felix Bourdieu attests that “tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others.”

Pierre Felix Bourdieu adduces that “It is no accident that when they [(dis)tastes] have to be justified, they are asserted negatively, by the refusal of other tastes.” Like all genre forms, horror has undergone multiple reconfigurations in how it presents its conventions and how we interpret its codes.

The very concept of horror is polysemic. Horror is a chimaera, a counter-cultural grotesque perpetually morphing to reflect social concerns or trends. By its very nature the newest, most outré horror cinema is a representation or commentary for the contemporaneous zeitgeist.

Critics perennially renegotiate horror per socio-cultural changes over time. When one horror cycle draws to an end, it enters a self-parodic baroque period from which a new genre cycle develops, reacting to now familiar horror imagery and stylings. A retroactive champion of the previous cycle usually describes the new, unfamiliar horror.

Examining a film’s form, style, content, and themes can help define these “phases” of horror cinema. In ‘The Classical Hollywood Cinema’, David Bordwell draws a parallel between the structure of classical Hollywood studio cinema and its contemporary society’s normative behaviours, finding one reflected in the other.

Narratives that correlate to real world heteronormative practices — as well as their inverse — allow classical storytelling to resonate with as wide an audience as possible, which is vital to a studio-based system. Writing on American horror cinema in 1979, long after Hollywood’s “Golden Age” studio production dissolved, Robert Paul Wood comes to the same conclusion as David Bordwell regarding the role cultural forces play in contributing to coherent cinematic narratives.

In his essay ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film,’ Robert Paul Wood combines a psychoanalytic approach to reading horror films with formal observations of their distinct, recurring motifs. He compiles a list of commonly occurring horror subjects that modern white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture usually represses.

Citing examples, Robert Paul Wood explains how children (‘The Omen’), homosexuality (‘Nosferatu’ [Murnau, 1922]), and female sexuality (‘Sisters’ [De Palma, 1973]) become horrific by virtue of their “otherness” in the horror narrative, thus threatening heteronormativity and linking societal concerns with common horror themes (themes that eventually become iconic tropes through repeated genre usage).

Robert Paul Wood further delineates the more specific commonalities that mark “the return of the repressed” in horror movies since the sixties, while intentionally excluding Hammer Film Productions’ horror films from his analysis. Here, Robert Paul Wood lists the heterogeneous cores of American horror from the sixties onwards and notes that each disparate theme locates horror within the family unit itself.

These society-generated horror motifs emphasize Robert Paul Wood’s ultimate point. In dealing with human evil and nihilism in less overtly stylized narratives (i.e., “real” acts happening to “real” people), horror movies of the sixties and seventies portray very different fears than the Universal classics or Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic milieu. While Robert Paul Wood uses a structured methodology to underline his argument, my approach shall be less theoretically ambitious but no less thorough.

In a manner consistent with Julie Ann Sipos’ ideal, Kristin Thompson demonstrates that more recent horror does not stray too radically from classical norms, regardless of content, despite a shake up of structural form.

Kristin Thompson negotiates both ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (Jonathan Demme, 1990) and ‘Alien’ (Ridley Scott, 1979) through salient breakdowns of narrative form in her book ‘Storytelling in the New Hollywood.’ Here Kristin Thompson notes that the classical narrative system provides scope for the individual horror stylings of each film alongside established genre tropes.

Ultimately, Kristin Thompson convincingly argues that a stable narrative system allows for complex narratives to be easily comprehensible and enjoyable while also permitting filmmakers to display virtuosity in their craft.

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