LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Author and critic Kim Newman reflects on Horror Channel's Hammer Classics Season
By Kim Newman, Thursday 1st November 2018
Very few people could write about Hammer films with the credentials that Kim Newman has. He's an award-winning author, a highly respected critic, a noted journalist and talented broadcaster and his passion for cinema is known throughout the industry. Here he takes a look at Horror's Hammer Classics Season.
Into the polite grey world of 1950s British cinema burst lurid EastmanColor decadence. In Essoldos, Odeons and Classics up and down the country, screens that were dominated by well-mannered, stiff-upper lip characters - the repressed romantics of Brief Encounter or the staunch heroes of The Dam Busters - suddenly ran red with gore, and the flash of the scarlet lining of Dracula's cloak. It was as if blood capsules had been rationed, but were now on the NHS. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became horror stars on a level with Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff. Monsters who'd been laughed off screen by Abbott and Costello a generation earlier were frightening - and sexy - again. A vital part of our heritage of horror.
And now, Horror Channel are gracing us with network premieres of four of the company's earliest, finest productions.
Hammer's first horror hits were the Quatermass films, based on the TV serials by Nigel Kneale, and the season's first offering, The Abominable Snowman (1957), a thoughtful, unusual monster movie, directed by Val Guest, adapts Kneale's television play 'The Creature'. A humane scientist (Peter Cushing) and a crass adventurer (Forrest Tucker) mount an expedition up the Himalayas in the hope of bringing back a yeti - dead or alive. A mix of grueling wilderness adventure, psychological horror and questioning drama, this is essentially a grown-up, chilly version of The Creature From the Black Lagoon - as a mythic monster harries unwary interlopers in a harsh environment, with psychic ululations luring maddened climbers out onto avalanche-prone slopes, but the real dramatic meat comes with Cushing's realisation that the yeti are more than mindless beasts, and that the real monsters on this mountain might be human.
The season's next film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), established the template for the Hammer horror brand - with febrile, mesmerising Peter Cushing as callous Dr Frankenstein and tall, disturbing Christopher Lee as his wounded creature. Its sumptuous production values showcasing art direction, costuming and a general sense of class, but with bloody smears on velvet collars and disembodied eyeballs among the bubbling retorts and fizzing coils, broke with earlier, tamer black and white gothics. Its frankness about sex and violence - combined with dry black humour ('pass the marmalade') - and dynamic direction by Terence Fisher, made it despised by critics who shuddered at the notion of a British film being as nasty as this, but its huge domestic and international grosses made the rise of the House of Hammer inevitable.
With a Frankenstein in the can, only one subject would do for a follow-up. Dracula (1958), which is the third film in the season. Just as Curse focuses on the scientist rather than the monster, this retelling of the Dracula story keeps Christopher Lee's Count in the shadows - except when he bursts hissing and bloody-fanged into the light - and follows Peter Cushing's Van Helsing as he sets out to assassinate the King of Vampires. Valerie Gaunt and Carol Marsh are Hammer's first Brides of Dracula, viciously kittenish seductresses with pearly little fangs and low-cut nighties who spurt rich red gore when righteously impaled by stake-wielding slayers. As much a swashbuckling adventure as a horror film, it climaxes with an unforgettable duel between an athletic Cushing and a cloak-swishing Lee and a spectacular disintegration of Dracula as dawn's light falls on the snarling, crumbling vampire.
Having mounted a hostile takeover of horror with their distinctive reimaginings of classic British horror properties that had been monopolised by Hollywood, Hammer were suddenly approached by American companies like Universal and offered remake rights to the monster franchises of a generation earlier. Another hit for the Cushing-Lee-Fisher trifecta, The Mummy (1959), which concludes Horror Channel's season, is a vivid combination of elements from all of Universal's bandaged bruiser series - and perhaps the first Hammer to hint at camp as action, atmosphere, romance and terror are evoked in a fast-paced, serial-style storyline that turns the sedate, staggering (slightly tubby) ancient Egyptian thug played by Lon Chaney Jr in 1940s into Lee's tall, lithe, Terminator-type unstoppable force, crashing through French windows, surviving a spear through the chest, and hauling the heroine off into the swamp. Note also a comedy drunk cameo from Michael Ripper, who would become as endearing a fixture in Hammer's monster-blighted village inns as the horse-brasses and the bulbs of garlic.
Horror Channel's Hammer Classics Season starts November 3rd at 9pm.
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