Hammer Film Productions’ Classical Gothic History

Hammer Film Productions’ Classical Gothic History
Copyright © Photograph by Niqueretta Sullivan
Originally founded in 1934 by William Hinds (1887-1957), United Kingdom’s Hammer Film Productions was one of the world’s most successful movie studios between 1958-1970, even winning the Queen’s Award of Industry in 1968. Despite never gaining great critical acclaim, the studio released 163 feature length productions between 1935 and 1978, averaging nearly four films a year over a period of 43 years, even allowing for the meagre three features released between 1974 and 1978.

While Hammer Film Productions worked across multiple genres, producing everything from comedies to science fiction along with war movies and fantasy epics, the studio’s bread-and-butter format was always Gothic horror after the surprise success of house director Terence Fisher’s ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) and ‘Dracula’ (‘Horror of Dracula’ in the United States of America, 1958). Indeed, nine of Hammer Film Productions’ and ten 1971 productions can be classed as variations of their Gothic mode. Of the one hundred and six films, Hammer Film Productions made after 1956, fully half (fifty-three) fit their Gothic milieu (including the seven “women in fear” pictures scripted by James Henry Kinmel Sangster).

Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic horror is vastly different to earlier horror cinema. Shot in colour, the films show blood and exposed female flesh against a backdrop of lavish set-design. 18th-century and Victorian literary sources influenced Hammer Film Productions horror films, contributing to their Gothic identity. Once accommodated, Gothic and romantic tales provided faux-medieval, nonspecific European settings and a predilection for brooding narrative scenarios, where stoic older men conduct macabre experiments or rescue virile young women in hybrids of horror and melodrama.

For a while, such films proved popular on both sides of the Atlantic but by 1978 Hammer Film Productions’ had run its course — only twenty-one years after Terence Fisher’s first ‘The Curse of Frankenstein.’ Verging on bankruptcy but never entering administration, Hammer Film Productions studios simply ceased functioning. After an extended period of dormancy, Hammer Film Productions re-emerged in 2007 when a joint Dutch-American enterprise purchased the rights to Hammer Film Productions and its entire back catalogue.

Now a London-based subsidiary of Exclusive Media, the reformed Hammer Film Productions has a central mission: to produce new horror movies for a 21st-century audience with an established name and reputation, while engaging a more modern audience with distribution across multi-media platforms. Hammer Film Productions now publishes books, sells posters and soundtracks culled from their extensive archives, and hawks an iPhone application. To date, the company has released four new cinematic features and one web-based serial.

Regardless of whatever success the post-millennial incarnation of Hammer Film Productions may attain, the owners will be cashing in on Hammer Film Productions’ name which is synonymous with horror in consumers’ minds. In the introduction to his book-length study ‘Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film,’ film scholar Peter Hutchings quotes from a 1964 British press clipping which affirms this assumption, summing up Hammer Film Productions’ critical and popular reception during their heyday. Certain branches of the British cinema are able to weather any crisis; they do not so much rise above it as sink beneath it, to a subterranean level where the storms over quotas and television competition cannot affect them. This sub-cinema consists mainly of two parallel institutions, both under ten years old; the Hammer Film Productions horror and the ‘Carry On’ comedy.

The main factor behind Hammer Film Productions’ ultimate inability to stay profitable corresponds to the perception that Hammer Film Productions’ brand overstayed its shelf life. Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic established an easily replicable formula for success, shunned product experimentation and continued to blithely ply their stock-in-trade without variation until it was too late, or so it is presumed. Implicit in this cycle of formulaic production is the assumption that Hammer Film Productions developed a distinctive Gothic product that functioned as a new paradigm for horror narratives. The product differentiation that Hammer Film Productions granted the studio in the fifties simultaneously marked the beginning of the studio’s rise and its precipitous fall from grace.

I believe that Hammer Film Productions established such a successful Gothic “mode” of storytelling by co-opting the classical Hollywood narrative paradigm. Doing so enabled Hammer Film Productions to develop a unified house style with a complex but recognizable narrative platform that filmmakers could easily alter when adapting various projects. Combining normalized, classical studio system storytelling methods with post-war British cultural sensibilities and new aesthetics proved to be lucrative for Hammer Film Productions, but this style eventually generated its own tropes and associations for audiences that no amount of future product experimentation could erase.

To explain Hammer Film Productions’ progression, my consecutive articles shall undertake an informal analysis of the Gothic horror and determine Hammer Film Productions’ de facto house style between 1956-1972. I will carefully analyze specific films that demonstrate how Hammer Film Productions attempted to adapt the house style to changing times.

Supplementing my own close readings of Hammer Film Productions are director Terence Fisher’s personal notes, which I consulted while conducting archival research at the British Film Institute in London. Terence Fisher’s writing helps to contextualize the films he made while clarifying his thoughts on his own role as a craftsman working on a studio product. The British Film Institute collections provided valuable insight into how creative forces combined with industrial structures during the early development of Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic mode.

Characterizing Hammer Film Productions’ breakout Gothic style permits me to demonstrate how the studio experimented with their aesthetic in attempts to stay “fresh” and profitable. Investigating the poetics of Hammer Film Productions’ product will help contextualize the studio’s fall from popularity and eventual decline. Accordingly, my articles shall lay a foundation for further study by providing a stable basis from which to draw associations between aesthetics and industrial and cultural changes. To achieve my goals, this series of articles shall consist of a case study analysis of eight films chosen to specifically highlight the establishment and subsequent development of Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic narrative style.

These eight films have been selected for their historical and industrial relevance to Hammer Film Productions as a film studio — each chapter discusses films indicative of Hammer Film Productions’ genre period. I shall demonstrate both the fluid adaptability of Hammer Film Productions’ Gothic storytelling mode and how, despite being a studio product, it reflects significant changes within the company. I have been fortunate in that the bulk of scholarly writing on Hammer Film Productions has been almost purely historical in nature, situating their output within an industrial-historiographic context. As such, an in-depth critical assessment remains to be done, and that is the task I seek to undertake.

Sarah Genner
Editor & Proofreader
This article has been edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a successful British Direct Response Marketing Copywriter, voice actor and artist.

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