[7 January 2011]
Breasts bulging from bustiers about to burst open. Fangs, fake looking blood and buckets of more fake looking blood. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing- and then yet more Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Britain’s Hammer Studios used all these elements to rule horror for more than a decade, beginning with the 1958 release of The Curse of Frankenstein. In the UK, their subsequent releases became major cultural events with crowds lining up to see the latest Hammer maidens and monsters for a bodice-ripping fear fest. They found almost equal popularity in the states and then a long after-life on late night TV.
Hammer achieved fame for their reboots of the classic universal monsters that mixed sex, a willingness to show the macabre in graphic style and editing techniques that ensured that the films would be stripped clean of anything that might slow down the action. If it wasn’t sexy, violent or frightening, it quickly hit the cutting room floor. It’s hard to think of another studio (as opposed to an actor or auteur) that became so identified with a particular genre and style.
Marcus Hearn, the official archivist for Hammer, has put together a gorgeous collection of Hammer’s sensationalistic and usually salacious adverts in The Art of Hammer: Posters from the Archives of Hammer Films. These works help explain much of the popularity of the Hammer franchises, often promising more sex and violence than the actual film. In fact, it can be argued that the posters really helped created the Hammer phenomenon, making the image of studio more important than the actual product.
Influenced by pop art and pulp styles, Hammer advertisements used the now lost art of the painted poster to promise audiences the lurid and the frightening. It worked, especially as Hammer learned to claim public space with their announcements. One of the best photographs in the collection us not a poster at all, but a photograph of a theatre marquee, crowds wrapping around the block and a GIGANTIC poster advertising the latest Hammer release.
One of the pleasures of this collection is the discovery of film art for some of Hammer’s lesser-known franchises. Before The Curse of Frankenstein made them the king of horror, Hammer produced films in a number of genres. This continued into the ‘70s with comedies, action films and some well-known sci-fi standards. Included in The Art of Hammer is the iconic image of Raquel Welch in the poster for One Million Years BC. This became one of the most recognizable images of lowbrow sci-fi in the ‘60 with all its cheesiness and cheesecake.
Dwindling audiences and continual strip mining of the same source material, caused a real decline in the quality of Hammer films by the ‘70s. Increasingly even Christopher Lee’s Dracula franchise suffered a failure of the imagination. The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is one example, described in the poster as a “Kung Fu horror film.”
Bad movies sometimes made for gorgeous poster art. The influence of psychedelic art is clear in the poster for Countess Dracula starring the recently deceased Hammer actor Ingrid Pitt. The Italian poster for Dracula: A.D. 1972 uses a painted image of Lee, cape billowing and his luscious victims sprawling to introduce this strange tale of the Count among the hippies. This era also saw Neal Adams, best known as a comic artist and his work on Batman drawing the poster for the otherwise forgettable Satanic Rites of Dracula.
Almost entirely made up of the poster art itself, Marcus Hearn wrote a strong, if short, introduction that tells us much about the individual artists. If the book has a drawback, it’s that there is not more text throughout. Only a few of the posters have any information beyond the title of the film and, sometimes, the name of the artist. Hearn has written a book, The Hammer Story, that is something of a companion piece to this one. This probably explains why this collection is a little too light on text.
Hammer has subsequently made something of a comeback as a stealth producer of important horror films such as the critically acclaimed remake of Let the Right One in called Let Me In. Notably, little was made of the fact that this was a “A Hammer Production” in the advertising. Hearn’s new collection allows a visit back to the studio’s glory days of heaving bosoms and gory effects. Fans of both Hammer films and the forgotten world of the painted poster have reason to celebrate.