Friday, June 29, 2012

Hammer Horrors: The 13 Greatest Gothics From Hammer Studios

Besides Universal Studios and their prolific output of cinematic horror, no other studio has unleashed as many savory horror treasures as Hammer Studios. This very British studio brought the world fresh and daring new takes on classic horror staples such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Werewolf. Starting in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, the combination of gore and heightened sexuality helped define the modern horror film. They also helped create stars out of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who essentially became what Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were in the 1930s. Together, they created a new era of horror, aided immeasurably by a strong supporting cast, able writers and directors, especially Terence Fisher, one of the genre's finest craftsman.
The studio's golden age lasted for nearly a decade, until the close of the 60s and the arrival of newer and gorier fare abroad, did the studio's fortunes begin to sink. There was worthy material produced during the decline(Vampire Circus, The Vampire Lovers, Blood From The Mummy's Tomb), but for the most part the studio could not keep up with the changing times, and unfortunately, collapsed in 1977 with the release of To The Devil A Daughter.
Hammer films represented a last hurrah for Gothic horror, the most visually and emotionally appealing of horror genres. The scripts were often intelligent, with a strong focus on characterization and complexities, that were often missing from other, similar films of the same period. Several classics were produced by the studio, hence the creation of this list. Like many that I have published before, my intention is not n necessarily to provide a definitive list on the studio's genre output, but rather serve as a guideline to some of the greatest and most important films that Hammer produced.
I eliminated Science Fiction from the criteria, preferring to focus on the Gothics. Hammer produced several worthy sci-fi efforts, including The Abominable Snowman(1957) and Quatermass and the Pit(1967), all which are recommended, but not appropriate for the criteria of this list. The same goes for the various thrillers, including the effective, Scream of Fear(1961), another that comes highly recommended.
As usual, I have narrowed it down to 13 films, an appropriate number for a list of horror films and I can only hope that this will inspire fans to seek out and rediscover these classic films, and perhaps, introduce some new fans to the wonderful world of Hammer Horror.

1. Horror of Dracula(1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough

The definitive Hammer horror is this revamping(pun intended) of the Bram Stoker classic. More or less streamlining the narrative, even more so than the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, Horror of Dracula manages to oil at the creaks of the old story and present a fresher and more frightening take on the character than had been seen before.
This version focuses on Johnathan Harker(John Van Eyssen) actually being dispatched to Dracula's castle as an assassin to slay the Count, but is thwarted in his plans, when he is bit by his Bride(Valerie Gaunt). In some ways, this predates Psycho(1960), which also was famous for killing off it's main character early on. Van Helsing(Peter Cushing) who was working with Johnathan, follows the Count and is on the trail of his destruction, as he prays on his fiance(Carol Marsh) and later, his sister-in-law(Melissa Stribling), leading to a chase at the end and a terrific conclusion.
Christopher Lee's Count Dracula is a more physical presence than Lugosi and by having the mystical elements eliminated, makes him a more human and deadlier villain. Peter Cushing makes the best Van Helsing of the screen, dynamic and athletic, the perfect adversary for Lee's animalistic and terrifying turn. The last reel battle to the death between the two is among the most memorable genre conclusions ever made.
Director Terence Fisher does not waste a single frame, utilizing a lightning pace to keep the picture moving, an effect which has rarely been achieved so effectively in other genre efforts. Aided by lush technicolor cinematography and a gorgeous, bombastic score by James Bernard, all help to make Horror of Dracula one of the great Gothic horrors and possibly, the best Dracula film made.

2. The Devil Rides Out(1968)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Leone Greene

Based off the Dennis Wheatley classic, The Devil Rides Out is a groundbreaking film, which further aided the fall of Production Code convention and authority, by offering up a story embracing satanism and the occult. While often skipped over, in favor of more famous works such as Rosemary's Baby(1968) and The Exorcist(1973), it's every bit as good as those classics.
For a change, Christopher Lee portrays the hero, an occult expert who attempts to save a friend involved in a satanic cult, led by the mysterious Charles Gray, one of the most captivating villains in any horror film.
Lee is fantastic as Duc de Richleau, one of his few hero roles, but one of his best performances overall. His grave authority and intensity, actually make him a rare figure in a horror film, that of a rather frightening hero!
The climax, involving a black mass, is particularly memorable and jolting, involving all manner of fears, sprung from the subconscious of the people involved. It's one of the best depictions of the occult on film and the film remains the last great film for Hammer Studios and Terence Fisher.

3. The Revenge of Frankenstein(1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Michael Gwynne, Francis Matthews

Thrilling follow-up to box-office smash, The Curse of Frankenstein, takes place right where the last one left off, with Baron Frankenstein(Peter Cushing) on his way to the guillotine. He cheats death and sets up practice under a new alias("Dr. Stein") and is busy at work again, taking body parts from the poor to build a new creature(Michael Gwynne) by taking the brain of his deformed assistant and placing it in the new, perfect body. Unfortunately, things go awry and the Creature reverts into a monster.
This was the best of Hammer's Frankenstein films, with the best script, one that is peppered with hefty doses of sentiment, as well as gallows humor. Cushing is perfection in this(as he usually was) and brings a sharp and sardonic wit to the determined Baron, forever cementing him as the definitive Frankenstein. Likewise, Michael Gwynne portrays the most memorable of Frankenstein's creations in the series, offering real sympathy for his plight, as he slowly begins to revert back to his deformity and lose his mind. It's interesting to note how much Gwynne resembles Hamilton Deane's Monster from the 1927 stage play, the same play that influenced the 1931 classic.
The ending is a shocker and ties up the concept that in the Hammer series, the Baron was indeed, the real monster. One of the best Frankenstein films ever made.

4. The Brides of Dracula(1960)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, David Peel, Yvonne Monlaur

Sequel to Horror of Dracula, decides not to resurrect the Count, but instead follow Van Helsing(Peter Cushing) and his adventures with another vampire, the title notwithstanding. This film is the closest that Hammer came to a genuine Gothic fairy tale, with pretty young Marianne(Yvonne Monlaur) ending up stranded at a country inn, where she is taken in by Baroness Meinster(Martina Hunt) to a mysterious castle on the hill. There, Marianne, discovers the Baroness' handsome son, Baron Meinster(David Peel) imprisoned. She sets him free, believing he has been wrongfully shackled, only to realize that she has released an evil vampire who sets to feed on all the young women of the country. Unluckily for him, Van Helsing arrives in the village and sets things right, leading to a spectacular climax that rivals that of the previous film, and we learn, once and for all, why Cushing was the definitive Van Helsing, as he cures himself of vampirism in a creative and brutal way.
Despite, lacking the presence of Lee or the character of the Count, Brides of Dracula more than makes up for it with it's Gothic atmosphere and disturbing story, including the Baron feasting on his own mother and a beautiful vampire girl rising from her grave. Peel is also one of the most underrated cinematic vampires, making a great adversary for Cushing's Van Helsing. Martina Hunt, Freda Jackson, as a crazy familiar of the Baron, are all wonderful and Yvonne Monlaur has to be among the most gorgeous Hammer babes of all, a bold statement for sure, when one considers the amount of beauty that this studio produced.

5. The Curse Of Frankenstein(1957)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Urquhart

This is the film that started it all! Originally designed as a remake of the 1931 James Whale film to be filmed in black and white, The Curse of Frankenstein instead was filmed in color and fearful of Universal Studios suing them, Hammer decided to create an original story. The result was one of the most important genre works ever made and a template for all Hammer horrors to follow.
Peter Cushing portrays Baron Frankenstein for the first time, relating his story to a priest from a cell, where he is to be executed for his crimes. He explains how since he was young, he was determined to create life and with the aid of his tutor and mentor, Paul Krempe(Robert Urquhart) succeeds in creating an abomination, in the form of Christopher Lee, one of the most frightening Frankenstein Monsters ever filmed.
Cushing is the real monster here, though, cold and calculating throughout and completely devoid of any empathy for his fellow man. Christopher Lee portrays his Creature with far less humanity than Boris Karloff, but makes an impression, bringing a sort of animal pity to the role, reminding one of a tortured beast or some damaged automaton, who does not have all his wires properly connected.
With the addition of gore, the emphasis on severed body parts and gruesome murder, The Curse of Frankenstein helped define the modern horror film and revitalize the Gothic horror tradition, from a decade far more interested in science fiction horrors of the nuclear age.
Easily, one of the most important genre works ever made.

6. The Mummy(1959)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux

Hammer's version of The Mummy is like a greatest hits package of the Universal series, except amped up considerably. Peter Cushing stars as John Banning, an archaeologist who uncovers the tomb of Princess Ananka, along with his father and uncle. His father is the first inside and goes mad and is sent to an insane asylum, where he is promptly murdered. It turns out that what his father saw was something that was enough to drive any man crazy: Christopher Lee as Kharis, the Terminator of mummies, avenging those who desecrated the tomb of Ananka. Lee's undead fiend is quite different from the slow-moving marauders over at Universal, opting for speed and power, along with being able to take point blank shotgun blasts and spears shoved through him. He makes for an imposing figure, though he is afforded sympathy, visible through his painful eyes, especially as he looks on the reincarnation of his lost love, played by the beyond-gorgeous, Yvonne Furneaux.
George Passtell follows in the footsteps of George Zucco, as a particularly memorable High Priest, who has Kharis perform the various murderous deeds and his battle of wits with Cushing is particularly amusing.
While not as poetic or eerie as the 1932 Karloff original, this one succeeds on sheer excitement and thrills and ranks as the next best Mummy film after the original, superior to the Kharis mummy films of the 1940s.

7. The Curse Of The Werewolf(1961)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romaine

One of the greatest werewolf films made, this borrows from Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris, for it's twisted coming of age story, about a child born on Christmas who has the mark of the beast. He grows into Leon(Oliver Reed) and when not receiving the right amount of love and care, turns into a snarling beast, setting up for a spectacular climax, along with a glimpse at the best werewolf design after the Lon Chaney Jr. original.
The Curse of the Werewolf is one of Hammer's darkest Gothic fantasies, beginning with the beautiful, buxom,Yvonne Romaine getting raped by a bestial prisoner, which leads to her pregnancy. Many disturbing scenes, such as Leon as a child, fanged and clawed, grabbing at the bars of his windows on a full moon night, or Oliver Reed's final transformation into the werewolf is legitimately frightening. This was Reed's first film role and it's easy to see how he became a star, because he's terrific in this, as is Clifford Evans as his sympathetic surrogate father, who finds himself in the same position as Claude Rains in The Wolf Man. 
Despite being a popular Hammer horror and one of the best the studio made, this was the only werewolf film that Hammer ever made. A pity, because they seemed quite adept at telling such a tale.

8. The Kiss Of The Vampire(1963)
Director: Don Sharp
Cast: Clifford Evans, Edward de Souza, Noel Willman

A fairly original vampire film, with a slight relation to the Karloff/Lugosi vehicle, The Black Cat(1934), this is one of the best non-Dracula movies ever made and the best Hammer produced. The film tells the story of a young couple(Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) who get stranded in a small European village, where a legion of vampires await them. The leader of the clan(Noel Willman) plans to make the girl one of his own, but with the aid of a vampire hunter(Clifford Evans), the young man and he are able to destroy this devilish cult.
The Kiss of the Vampire is an underrated Hammer horror, lacking the presence of Cushing and Lee, but succeeding nonetheless, due to a good script and some original ideas on the vampire myth, including a truly creative demise that involves a horde of bats summoned up from an ancient spell, which was lifted from the original conclusion for Brides of Dracula. There's also a gruesomely inventive scene where de Souza defends himself from vampires by painting a cross across his chest with his own blood!
This film anticipates many of the later vampire pictures with it's emphasis on dark sexuality and the secret of what lurks behind closed doors. At times, it's reminiscent of a Gothic fairy tale, at other times, it's indicative of a classic ghost story. Either way, it excels as fine entertainment and another feather in the cap for Hammer films.

9. The Plague Of The Zombies(1966)
Director: John Gilling
Cast: Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams

Despite the lack of Hammer regulars, The Plague of the Zombies is one of the scariest and most memorable of the studio's films. Following in the footsteps of White Zombie(1932) and I Walked with a Zombie(1943), this pre-Romero zombie film tells a tale of voodoo in a small Welsh village, where the dead are brought back to life to labor in tin mines for the cruel Squire Hamilton(John Carson, in a very nasty turn).
These are not your typical pasty-faced fiends, either, but actual rotting corpses, complete with demonic white eyes and expressions that rank them among the most terrifying put on film.
Several key scenes play out, most memorably, a nightmare in a graveyard, involving the dead rising from their graves and praying on the hero. I'm sure it created a few nightmares among viewers.
Important to the genre and atmospheric and effective, this ranks among the top zombie films ever made and one of the better later-Hammers.

10. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!(1969)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones

The most brutal of the Hammer Frankensteins, and in some places considered the best, Frankenstein must be Destroyed! is one dark movie, perfectly representative of the kind of change that cinema was going through. There's no doubt from the pre-credit sequence that Cushing is fully villainous here and the true monster, for sure. Where the Baron had appeared to get gentler as the series progressed, here he is a shrewd, calculating monster, who lets no one stand in his way to ultimate failure, for surely Frankenstein is destined to fail. He blackmails a young couple into helping him, going so far as to actually rape the young woman, in one of the most controversial scenes in a Hammer film, and one that the gentlemanly actor, protested. The Baron is far more ruthless than previously depicted.
This time around, he experiments on brain transplantation, placing the brain of an old colleague into that of another man. Freddie Jones is an exceptional monster, trying to cope with his new body and the spurning of his wife due to his new appearance. It all leads to a brilliant conclusion with a cat and mouse game between creation and creator.
Director Fisher has some suspense scenes worthy of Hitchcock, including one involving a burst water pipe and a hidden body in a garden, which certainly is a highlight.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! is a cynical and violent movie, probably not for everybody, but it remains one of Hammer's most daring and horrific works, with Cushing at his most villainous.

11. The Reptile(1966)
Director: John Gilling
Cast: Noel Willman, Jacqueline Pearce, Jennifer Daniel

One of Hammer's most original efforts, complete with a truly memorable monster, this disturbing little oddity revolves around a young couple(Jennifer Daniel and Ray Barrett) who move into a small village, where several mysterious deaths have occurred, including that of the young man's brother. They turn out to be the work of a cursed young woman(Jacqueline Pearce) a gorgeous girl who becomes a loathsome snake woman, due to an Indian curse placed on her, because of her father(Noel Willman) had offended an anciebt cult in India.
This is a moody and fascinating film, heightened by stark atmosphere, and a clever makeup design that is among Roy Ashton's best work. Jacqueline Pearce is lovely and sympathetic as the unfortunate girl, and it's a shame such a pretty thing was forced into being a reptile and a zombie the same year, rather than a romantic interest. Michael Ripper, a Hammer regular, who seems to have appeared in every other film made by the studio, gets a nice sizable part here as a bartender who aids the young couple and proves to be the real hero of the story.
Undeserving of it's near obscurity, this is Hammer horror at it's best and one of the most original monster films ever made.

12. The Gorgon(1964)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley

Interesting take on the Greek myth, set in the early 20th century, this features a rare role reversal for Cushing and Lee, where Cushing plays the villainous doctor who is harboring the title monster and Lee is the professor out to stop him. While, the makeup for the Gorgon leaves something to be desired, the script is decent and the atmosphere throughout, effective, particularly in the ancient mansion on the hill, where the Gorgon lurks and turns unlucky wanderers to stone.
Barbara Shelley makes for a tragic leading lady, unaware of her curse into the hideous monster by night, and bound to villainous Cushing, in of his most underrated performances. She's quite lovely here, and her demise is all the more tragic, as is the whole conclusion, one of the bleakest of any Hammer.
Richard Pasco portrays a young man searching for the reasons behind his father and brother's death, unfortunately falling for Shelley, and getting himself into a web of terror that ultimately seals his fate.
Christopher Lee makes the most of a relatively smaller part, bringing gusto to his role as monster hunter, though some may think him miscast, his sympathy at the conclusion, really makes the film, and those that have seen it, know why.
Unfortunately, this was the last teaming of Cushing, Lee and Fisher for Hammer studios, an end to one of the most fruitful collaborations in genre history. At least, they went out with a fine film, which The Gorgon certainly is.

13. Dracula, Prince Of Darkness(1966)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Kier

Second sequel to Horror of Dracula, actually follows the events of the first film, this time focusing on a small band of English tourists who are stranded in Transylvania and end up as guests at the notorious Castle Dracula, where the Count's faithful servant, Klove(Phillip Latham, in a sinister turn) waits on them, using their blood to resurrect his master, Christopher Lee, who returns to the role, not speaking a word!
Too bad for the Count, that Andrew Kier, playing a tough Monsignor, and making a fine replacement for an absent Peter Cushing, is bent on destroying him, sending the Count to an icy grave(literally!)
This is a very entertaining and enjoyable Hammer offering, and the best of the Dracula sequels(after Brides of Dracula), proving that even without dialogue, Christopher Lee is the most menacing Count Dracula on film.
The cast is among the best assembled for a Hammer film, including Francis Matthews as a Cary Grant-like hero and Suzanne Farmer as his pretty, charming wife and the eyes of Dracula's affection. Barbara Shelley goes from prim and proper English lady to sexy, voluptuous vampire vixen in one of the best(and most influential) vampire babe performances ever, earning her an immortal spot in the genre and Hammer Glamour.
Andrew Kier, as the rifle-toting priest, is more than a worthy adversary and makes the best post-Cushing vampire hunter to be found in a Hammer film, combining authority with a nice touch of humor to make his character work.
Elements of the novel and legend are apparent, including Dracula making Farmer drink his blood, the use of running water as a deterrent  against Vampirism, and even an appearance by Renfield, played by the delightful, Thorley Walters.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness is one of the most popular Hammer horrors and it's easy to see why, as it is a fast-paced and frightening good time, peppered with good performances and enough chills and gore to satisfy any Hammer fan.

Hammer films made several of the greatest horror films ever made, many which did not make this list. They pushed the boundaries of sex and violence in the genre, while offering intelligent and frightening films that continue to impact and influence the genre. They were the only studio after Universal to successfully franchise the classic monsters and at the same time, properly reinvent them. Many filmmakers could learn lessons from the Hammer way of making horror and remaking the classics, for even at their most exploitative, this studio still maintained dignity and class, no matter what the circumstance. Even towards the end, with a growing emphasis on nudity and sexuality, few could have done it with as much artistic value and class as Hammer. They attracted many of the genre's best actors, sexiest heroines, and greatest characters. It's impossible to measure the full impact of these films, as this top 13 is merely a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of the studio's output. I'm certain that they will continue to entertain and delight filmgoers for decades to come and influence many more dreamers and artists, long after that, especially the best ones. The work of Cushing, Lee and Fisher, will likely remain immortal, a distinction only held by their most famous fictional creations.

No comments:

Post a Comment