[9 January 2012]
Hammer Films is probably best-known for its string of well-crafted, brilliantly-acted horror movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, movies like Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. These films all benefited from lavish sets, ace direction from Terrence Fisher, and superb acting from the classically-trained Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, among others. Hammer was a company unafraid of pushing the limits of both bloody gore and sexual suggestivity, and many viewers have recoiled in delight and/or revulsion at one or another of the company’s efforts.
What many viewers might not realize, especially those living outside the UK, is that Hammer’s output went far beyond their notorious horror movies. Directors and actors working under the Hammer Films rubric explored science fiction, prehistoric fantasy, historical and pirate adventure, psychological thrillers—even morality tales warning parents and children of the dangers posed by pedophiles. Far from being one-note, Hammer’s offerings covered a wide range of often-controversial topics and styles.
Now comes The Hammer Vault, a lushly produced, oversized hardcover volume that celebrates the lauded—and disparaged—company. The Hammer Vault doesn’t aim to summarize storylines or otherwise bring the reader up to speed in terms of plot developments or the characters in the films; it operates under the assumption that the reader already enjoys a degree of familiarity with the movies. Instead, the book provides something else: a behind-the-scenes look at the travails and triumphs of a company whose products were often as critically derided as they were popularly loved—and profitable.
Most of all, The Hammer Vault provides a near-endless parade of film-related memorabilia to pore over—stills from the films, publicity handouts, newspapers ads, backstage photos, press clippings and so forth. The book’s primary purpose doesn’t seem so much to create new Hammer fans (although I can’t imagine any teenager leafing through these pages and not becoming intrigued), but rather, to provide existing fans with a gold mine of odds and ends to leaf through. Here, for example, is the publicity booklet for The Abominable Snowman, a film from the early ‘50s directed by Val Guest; here is a collection of backstage photos from Rasputin, the Mad Monk; and here is a scathing review from The Observer of 1958’s Revenge of Frankenstein: “The whole thing is, to my taste, a vulgar, stupid, nasty, and intolerably tedious business; a crude sort of entertainment for a crude sort of audience.” Hey! You can’t talk about Peter Cushing that way!
In the ‘60s, Hammer’s output expanded to include special effects-driven spectacles like One Million B.C. starring Raquel Welch, a fur bikini and a mess of dinosaurs, as well as related titles like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Creatures The World Forgot. Science fiction like Moon Zero Two was also on the program, yet it was the new takes on classic horror—Countess Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Lust For a Vampire—that remained Hammer’s bread and butter. Even diehard fans who have seen these movies are apt to find something new in this book, as included are many publicity photographs which often show images absent from the movies themselves. As the movies grew more licentious and suggestive, the publicity material did as well, often leaving the films lagging behind in what was actually shown onscreen.
The compendium has been assmbled by Marcus Hearn, the “official film historian of Hammer Films” (who knew?) and obviously a man who delights in the company’s efforts. As mentioned earlier, he eschews plot summary for the most part, focusing instead on the logistics of how the films came to be, as well as the behind-the-scenes efforts of executives like Anthony Hinds and James Carreras, who were responsible for the first Hammer production, The Quatermass Xperiment.
It’s interesting to note that, like American low-budget mogul Roger Corman, Hammer often began the filmmaking process with a catchy title like The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb or Frankenstein Created Woman before one word of screenplay was written. Next would come a suitably garish lobby poster, sometimes illustrating a scene that would never exist in the final product, using generic faces as stand-ins for the as-yet-uncast actors. Such posters would be brought around to exhibitors and distributors in order to gauge their appeal. A lukewarm response might result in a cancelled production, while widespread enthusiasm would kick the process into high gear. A Hammer film was a solid bet for exhibitors, who gave the thumbs-up to a proposal far more often than not.
One of the most compelling sections of the book is the brief but tantalizing chapter on proposed projects which never made it past the planning stages. Given all that Hammer did accomplish, it seems churlish to wish for more—but who could resist seeing a movie like When the Earth Cracked Open or Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls? Alas, these movies and others would remain only dreams inside their creators’ heads.
The Hammer Vault is a thoroughly enjoyable stroll down one of the bloodier byways of memory lane, and for fans of the company, it will provide hours of diversion. Newcomers are apt to be intrigued enough to check out some of the films mentioned here, too, which is all to the good—no matter the verdict of The Observer, the films here are far from being simply “a crude sort of entertainment for a crude sort of audience.”