Hammer Film Productions Prestige in the Early 1960s

Mark Jancovich

Mark Jancovich

In histories of the horror film, the 1960s is usually presented as a crucial period and one that is defined either by the phenomenal success of Hammer Film Productions’ ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) or by the making of ‘Psycho’ (1960). In both accounts, the period is a break from the past and one that witnesses the emergence of the contemporary horror film. Furthermore, these accounts tend to replicate an image of horror as a low budget, a disreputable genre that deals with dark, disturbing and potentially subversive materials, an image that ignores or marginalises other developments in the period. The result even misrepresents both Hammer Film Productions’ output and Alfred Joseph Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ neither of which were simply low budget efforts. On the contrary, while Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was a prestige director who was working on a lower budget than usual, ‘Psycho’ was in no way a low budget horror film: and, as Heffernan has demonstrated, even Hammer Film Productions’ horror films were not low budget projects but the product of an explicit strategy by the studio, which was attempting to break out of low budget filmmaking and into the lucrative first run market in the United States of America.

By the mid-1950s, the major Hollywood studios saw the film audience as one that was divided into four distinct markets, the most valuable of which was the market for huge roadshow productions. The first run market was the next most valuable, and it was here that, before the 1950s, the major studios had earned seventy-five percent of their profits at a small number of metropolitan picture palaces where they could charge high prices from the affluent middle classes. The next two markets were seen as more economically marginal so that the major studios had traditionally ignored them or seen them as peripheral to their core business: cinemas catering to working class and small-town audiences on the one hand, and the art house on the other, although the latter became increasingly significant throughout the 1960s.

If companies such as Hammer Film Productions had traditionally been locked out of the profitable first-run market, this situation changed in the mid-1950s. On the one hand, the major studios had been forced to sell off their theatres after the Paramount Pictures decision of 1948 and no longer had an incentive to provide a yearly schedule for exhibitors. On the other, the studios became increasingly focused on the road show productions during the 1950s and early 1960s. These two factors encouraged the major studios to lose interest in the production of regular programming, a situation that caused a crisis for exhibitors who welcomed the intervention by companies such as Hammer Film Productions, which filled the gap left by the majors. Hammer Film Productions therefore needs to be seen as a studio that, between 1957 and the late 1960s, was defined by its strategy for the first run market, and by its position between the low budget producers on the one hand and the major studios on the other. However, if the British studio had a largely free hand between 1957 and 1960, the success of Hammer Film Productions and other smaller producers inspired the prestige producers to develop horror films of their own, productions that were often budgeted well beyond the means of companies such as Hammer Film Productions.

The following article will, therefore, explore this cycle of prestige horror films targeted at the first run market, most of which followed a series of basic strategies. For example, the female market had long been seen as key to the first run market, and it was therefore hardly surprising that many of the prestige horror films were directly targeted at female audiences, and featured female stars with strong associations with the woman’s film. Furthermore, in the 1940s, the woman’s film and the prestige horror film may not have been synonymous with one another but there had been a substantial amount of overlap between the two, with the most requested re-release of the 1940s being ‘Rebecca,’ a clear example of a woman’s film that was also a prestige horror film, and one that was heavily imitated throughout the decade. As a result, during this earlier period, many of the key horror films were female-centred and many of the key examples of the woman’s film were generically marked as horror films.

In the 1960s, then, many of the prestige films returned to this model (and often explicitly evoked memories of these earlier films) while also employing two other strategies. On the one hand, many of the prestige horror films were adaptations of literary and/or theatrical properties, a tendency that was not simply an attempt to exploit presold materials but also to evoke the quality of more legitimate art forms. The second strategy was a strong preference for “psychological” horror along the lines of the prestige horror films of the 1940s, and this strategy not only included examples of the Gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film, in which the female lead was driven to the point of psychological breakdown by her tormentors, but also a fascination with the figure of the psychologically disturbed villain (often a serial killer) whose presence clearly predated ‘Psycho’ and was also a key feature of the prestige horror films of the 1940s. There was also a corresponding avoidance of supernatural materials, with the exception of stories involving ghosts and/or witchcraft, both of which could be given a psychological spin that stressed “suggestion” rather than “explicitness” and allowed the possibility of a rational, rather than a supernatural, explanation for mysterious and uncanny events.

The account that follows, however, is based three different types of reception materials: marketing materials, particularly trailers, and reviews in Variety and The New York Times. Certainly, there are a range of other sources, such as production files and the documents of the Production Code Administration, that would have provided valuable insights, too, and Heffernan’s work here has been invaluable. However, the constraints of word length and the desire to maintain a conceptual focus have necessitated considerable restraint in the selection of materials. The production process is certainly worth understanding, but it does not give us access to how films were likely to be consumed, just as the ways in which films are consumed does not provide an understanding of the contexts within which they were made. Consequently, the focus here is on reception materials rather than production records, in much the same way that most studies of production focus on production documents rather than reception materials. Indeed, even the selection of reception materials also requires further restraint, given the richness and the variety of these sources. There is an astonishing range of reception materials that one could study but the aim of this account is not to provide an (impossibly) comprehensive account of all of the ways in which prestige horror films were discussed within the period but rather to examine some key structures and distinctions that were in operation at the time.

The selection of these three sources has therefore been strategic, with all three providing clear and distinct senses of how the market for the prestige horror films was imagined and how individual films were seen as appealing to this market. Trailers, for example, made the most direct address to audiences and offer a sense of the ways in which individual films were supposed to appeal to these markets. The point is not whether the audiences were convinced by this marketing but rather to clarify the terms within which these films were supposed to appeal to their potential consumers. Alternatively, the reviews in Variety were not aimed directly at these audiences but rather at exhibitors; and these reviews were designed to offer exhibitors advice about the likely audiences for individual films, and hence whether exhibitors should book these films and, if they did so, how to promote them. Finally, the reviews in The New York Times were not aimed at the exhibitors, nor was it simply concerned with selling films to audiences. If these reviews provided some advice to audiences about whether or not to see a particular film, the critics associated with this publication were far more concerned to provide a broader sense of commentary on individual films and their relation to film culture in general. In other words, The New York Times was highly concerned with its role as a “tastemaker”: it offered more than consumer advice and saw its role as being to defend and even advance the aesthetic standards by which films were judged. As Beaver has argued, the newspaper’s screen editor and foremost film critic at the time, Bosley Crowther, wanted reviews that went beyond “simply reflecting public taste”, and sought to convince “the public of the motion picture’s artistic and social potential”. Furthermore, as a critic of immense importance and influence in the period, Bosley Crowther may not have represented avant-garde tastes, but he did represent legitimate taste. Certainly, there were publications that might have better reflected the “run of the mill” first run audience member (if such a thing ever existed), but the importance of The New York Times was that it represented what was generally acknowledged to be “right”, even by people who did not share those tastes.

In other words, while these three materials are not identical and give different perspectives, and while both The New York Times and Variety featured a number of different reviewers, reviewers who inevitably had different personal preferences, the point here is to focus on the structuring oppositions in relation to which judgements were made. On the one hand, despite the difference between reviewers, both publications maintained a clear editorial policy that defined the terms within which individual reviewers operated and, on the other, the question is not whether a review in The New York Times praised, or condemned, a particular film; but rather the ways in which these judgements were defined in terms of a pre-established structure of distinctions. Different publications, and/or the individual critics who wrote for these publications, may have debated where a specific text stood in relation to specific categories but the distinctions between categories were still in operation.

Furthermore, the above claim about the categories of taste also applies to categories of genre. In other words, the article does not set out from a predetermined definition of horror as a genre but seeks to examine how generic categories were defined within the late 1950s and early 1960s. Genre categories are not simply defined by some “Factor X” which remains fixed across time. On the contrary, generic categories are historically specific so that understandings of genre in one period cannot be simply applied retrospectively onto earlier periods; and while some readers may be surprised at the films that are discussed here, and even object that certain films are not really horror films, the article makes its selection on the basis the ways in which critics in the 1960s generically categorized specific films and understood larger generic categories. In this context, the wideness with which the net has been cast, and the seemingly eclectic range of texts that has brought together, as a result, is crucial; the article seeks to select films on the basis of the ways in which they were generically understood at the time and, in the process, to move beyond the texts that are commonly discussed as horror today; or rather to provide a new sense of the landscape of horror in the period, a landscape that then requires us to see the familiar landmarks within a new context.

However, given that, as Rick Altman has pointed out, films are rarely explicitly marked generically but rather though terms that “imply generic affiliation” without stating it, the following article will look at these trailers and reviews in a number of ways. It will explore the terms through which “generic affiliation” is implied, and target audiences are indicated.

Furthermore, it will examine the distinctions in relation to which judgements of quality were made and the various factors that were associated with these judgements of quality. It will also provide a largely narrative account of the development of this cycle from the late 1950s, when the studios began to respond to the success of companies such as Hammer Film Productions, and until the mid 1960s, when the situation began to change, and the studios started to abandon the roadshow strategy and refocus their attention on the first run market, a period which also saw the majors appropriate the strategy of companies such as Hammer Film Productions who had simultaneously sought to target youth audiences while also exploiting the appeal of art house cinema.

The first section, therefore, focuses on the initial prestige horror productions which either aspired to be serious and important films through their use of adult content or, conversely, were targeted at the family audience through their more “juvenile” appeal. The second section then moves on examine the ways in which some films, such as ‘Psycho,’ explicitly tried to copy aspects of the low budget horror films but also clearly marked themselves out as more quality productions; while others, such as ‘Midnight Lace’ (1960), explicitly employed a glossy and glamorous look in an explicit appeal to female audiences. The next section then focuses on the tension between seriousness and sensationalism, and the ways in which the supposedly shocking realism that was used to suggest seriousness was often seen as indistinguishable from low brow sensationalism; while the attempt to avoid sensationalism was often criticized for failing to deliver the pleasures expected of an effective horror film. This section also demonstrates the ways in which the aesthetics of camp became a key feature of horror during the period and one that frustrated, or complicated, the opposition between seriousness and sensationalism.

These issues also raise the spectre of the art cinema, and the next section looks at the ways in which a number of horrific art films managed to achieve success with first-run audiences while elsewhere the horror film was become more glossy, glamorous and drew on some of the most prestigious talent in Hollywood. Finally, then, the article considers the tension between realism and restraint in the horror films of the mid-1960s. In other words, by the mid-1960s, the serious, realistic handling of materials was increasingly seen to conflict with the respectability and restraint previously expected in the first run market and, in this context, Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965) came to represent a new type of horror cinema which drew on the art cinema and challenged the timidity of Hollywood conventions. Furthermore, it did so at a time when the major studios were about to move away from the roadshow strategy; to target new markets (particularly the youth market); and to reject the systems of self-censorship that had previously guaranteed the respectability of Hollywood films to affluent middle class audiences, a system that had come to be seen as limiting and outmoded by many in the mid-1960s.

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