Hammer Films! What a tide of blood and horror the name conjures for the now-aging children who formed the post-war baby boom. Our teens and twenties saw the golden – or, more likely, scarlet – age of Hammer.
In 1958, when Hammer Films released their first colour horror movies, I celebrated my twelfth birthday. Even if I hadn’t looked young for my years (I was twenty-three when a barman last asked my age) there was no way I could have passed for sixteen, the minimum demanded by an ‘X’ Certificate.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an ambivalent attitude to horror – a fearful fascination combined with repulsion. Perhaps that’s what horror is truly all about. As the name implies, it’s supposed to horrify us.
I think my earliest exposure to horror came from a thick green covered hardback stored on a high shelf of a cupboard in my parents’ bedroom. It was illustrated; the title was A Century of Thrillers. My little sister and I used to sneak into Mum and Dad’s bedroom, when my parents weren’t about, stand on something or other, fetch the book down and dare to look at the pictures. The second worst illustration, as far as I was concerned, was the frontispiece – showing a devil sitting on a coffin.
It was captioned: The foul fiend, in his ain shape, sitting on the laird’s coffin! Having ventured – at that time – no further north than Suffolk, and unaware of Scottish dialect, I failed to recognise the word ain as a variant of own – and thought that it must mean foul, hideous, frightening, or the like. When I used the word thus in a composition at school, the teacher marked it with a red question mark. But I regarded this with distain: hadn’t I seen the word, as incontrovertible as liquorice, printed in a book?
The most frightening picture in the book, as far as my sister and I were concerned, was the last one. It illustrated an Algernon Blackwood tale: The Woman’s Ghost Story, and was captioned: My room became haunted with demons.
In our fleeting raids on our parents’ bedroom, we had no time to read any of the stories, even had we dared to explore the nature of the horrors. In reality, most of the tales were tame enough, and not at all as my fevered childhood imagination supposed them to be. My sister and I would certainly have been able to make very little of the Scottish dialect piece depicted by the frontispiece. When I tried to tackle it in my twenties, I gave the thing up as incomprehensible. Ye maun wasn’t a good start, as far as I was concerned. What was that Ilk? What were the dear years? And that’s just the first sentence. Jings!
In my teenage years, there was a cinema on London Road in Westcliff-on-Sea called The Mascot, which made a speciality of showing horror films. For an extended period, or so it seemed, one could rely on a programme of frights. Eventually, on 27th October 1964, when I was eighteen, it burnt to the ground. The conflagration seems oddly appropriate, as so many the films it showed, not least Roger Corman’s efforts, resolved the plot by burning down the house. The final film shown at the Mascot was not horror, but is curiously apt: an Italian swords and sandals flick entitled Ursus in the Land of Fire.
When a companion and I stood at the threshold of the Mascot, neither of us had reached the required age of sixteen. We were both, I think, nervous lest the ticket seller demand to know how old we were. So we hesitated at the door and examined the lobby cards. More than half a century later, I still recall them quite vividly. I wish I knew what the film was, but I don’t. What I saw, essentially, was a series of cobweb-draped interiors. It might, perhaps, have been a warning against neglecting one’s housework. Nothing frightening was visible, yet I was frightened. My imagination filled the depicted shadows with monsters doubtlessly many times more horrible than those of the film… if contained monsters at all. Well, there must have been monsters, mustn’t there? If there weren’t any monsters, the Mascot wouldn’t have shown the film, would it? Of course not. Let’s talk sense. I was never to discover whether the ticket seller would have barred our entrance, or whether the film contained much more than cobwebs. My companion and I succumbed to our trepidation and fled across the road to the cinema everyone of my acquaintance called the Metropole.
Strictly speaking, the Metropole, at this point in its history, was the Westcliff Essoldo – but no matter. It was showing an ‘A’ certificate film from which my companion’s and my age debarred us as surely as it did from the ‘X’ certificate flick across the road. (A person less than sixteen years old was not allowed into an ‘A’ certificate film unless accompanied by someone over 21.) Feeling almost (but not quite) as brave as a Mascot patron, I bought my ticket to see The Colossus of Rhodes, a swords and sandals movie, albeit one with a bigger budget than Ursus in the Land of Fire.
The director’s name was new to me.
The film was jolly exciting and yet I emerged from it wishing that I’d had the nerve to brave The Mascot. The Colossus of Rhodes is available on DVD in this rather splendid region free American boxed set:
In lieu of horror films, I soon started to read ghost and horror stories, including these books:
After a break in my education, during which I worked for my living, I went to university in 1966, aged twenty – and still not having seen a horror film. I soon made a friend of Des Lewis on the basis of our both having heard of H P Lovecraft (who was, in those days, rather an obscure writer). Des, oddly enough, had been introduced to Lovecraft by a school friend who had met such major Hammer horror figures as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher. That school friend was Michel Parry who later wrote the novelisation of Hammer’s Countess Dracula and edited numerous horror anthologies. It all appears to tie together quite neatly.
When next a double bill of Hammer horror films was shown at a local cinema, Des invited me along, assuming that I was already a Hammer aficionado. So, the first horror films I saw were Hammers. Examining a Hammer chronology, I find that 1966 was a fine year for their horror films – but, I strongly suspect, neither film was new. I think (although I’m not certain) that one was a Frankenstein film; the other concerned the Mummy. Whatever the films, they were neither as horrible nor as bloody as I’d expected, but they were horrible and bloody enough. Over the next decade or so, I watched whatever Hammer horrors landed at a cinema in my vicinity. I certainly saw a number of Christopher Lee’s outings as Dracula on their first release. In addition, I saw Hammer’s cavegirl films, including One Million Years BC, when they first hit the cinemas.
My attitude to horror remains ambivalent, as perhaps it should. My fascination with these now aging films has resulted in my owning a great number of Hammer Films on DVD and/or Blu-ray. It is now my intention to watch these in chronological order, starting with Stolen Face (a precursor, maybe, to the Frankenstein films). Some even earlier Hammer material is available, notably the Dick Barton films, but I wished to begin with what might be a signpost pointing in the general direction of the gore-spattered road Hammer would take. There are also twenty-first century Hammer films, but these seem to me quite different from those of the 1952 to1979 period, such as I intend to review on this site. I will probably take the movies two films at a time.
As a preliminary, I’ve stocked up with flicks I didn’t have, and have sought more complete copies of films I have reason to think may have been cut. I have come to the conclusion that the cuts (to movies with a fair bit of blood and nudity) tend to be of the order of three to four minutes per film Those few minutes don’t amount a very long time, but are in excess of three or four percent of films in the ninety minutes bracket. An old boxed set called Hammer House of Horror The Vampire Collection, issued by Carlton, seems an especially bad offender. It includes three films, the timings of which (according to a Sony Blu-ray player) compare with longer versions thus (in hours:minutes:seconds):
Twins of Evil
Carlton edition: 1:23:40
Network Blu-ray edition: 1:27:18
Carlton edition: 1:29:18
Network Blu-ray edition: 1:33:04
Carlton edition: 1:23:17
Koch Media German Blu-ray edition (said to be uncut): 1:27:10
Another evidently similarly cut film is:
The Vampire Lovers
Original UK MGM DVD release: 1:27:22
Studio Canal double DVD with Lust for a Vampire: 1:27:26
US (Region 1) DVD Movies 4 You Horror from Timeless Media Group: 1:31:14
Strangely, here, the longest version I have is one of four films on a single sided disc. The picture/sound may leave something to be desired. Unless I find another longer version, I may have to choose between length and quality of reproduction.
I suspect that Lust for a Vampire is likely to be similarly cut, but have yet to locate a substantially longer version. I have two:
From the old Studio Canal boxed set Hammer Horror Selection: 1:31:25
From a newer Studio Canal double DVD, with The Vampire Lovers: 1:31:43
At all events, which version of these films I should watch (to write reviews) is not today’s issue. I have a large number of films to go through first. I intend, in forthcoming posts, to review a great many Hammer Films from Stolen Face (1952) to The Lady Vanishes (1979). In between, I hope to cover all of Hammer’s horror films, all of the cavegirl flicks, a quantity of other fantasies, some adventure and a bit of black humour. I will limit myself to films designed to be shown in the cinema. Furthermore, I specifically exclude war films and most of Hammer’s comedy output. People interested in Mutiny on the Buses or The Camp on Blood Island must write their own reviews – they won’t see them from me. (Not that I would wish to bracket Mutiny on the Buses and The Camp on Blood Island together, other than as films I have no wish to review.)
So… let us crack open our popcorn, unwrap our choc ices, and stab straws into our Kia-ora. I wish I had a copy, on DVD, of the old cinema advert for Westlers’ hot dogs. A young woman winked as she inserted one of Westlers’ products into her mouth to the slogan: Have fun with a hot dog. Other days, other ways – but the old Hammer Films continue their reign of blood and horror, together with an assortment of other thrills. Long may they so continue.