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An Alternate History of Horror: Kensington Gore, Part 2.

By Ryan Fleming.

(for Part 1 of this article, see here).

It lives!!!!

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1957 and 1974, Hammer produced seven Frankenstein films. Between 1958 and 1974, they produced nine Dracula films. These sequels vary widely in tone, content, quality, and even stars. Four Mummy films were released between 1959 and 1971. They finally adapted Nigel Kneale’s third Quartermass serial – Quartermass and the Pit, aired in 1958 – in 1967 closely aligned with the style of their Gothic horror films. Beyond the actual sequels, there were also plenty of other thematic series. The most common element was always the actors from the repetory company they had built during their early horror heyday. Though even the absence of their stars would not deter them from churning out sequels.

Unable to lure Christopher Lee back as Count Dracula even for a cameo, Hammer pressed ahead with a sequel based around Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing hunting down the Count’s progeny throughout Transylvania. The Brides of Dracula was released in 1960, and Hammer tried again to make a Dracula sequel without Dracula in 1963, but this time even Cushing was not willing to sign on and the film was released as Kiss of the Vampire. These films portrayed vampirism as a sort of social disease, with aristocratic vampires spreading their infection and bringing the middle classes and peasantry (particularly buxom young maidens) into their licentious lifestyle. Had Hammer been able to secure Cushing for Kiss of the Vampire, it’s possible that their vampire series might have revolved around Van helsing rather than Dracula, around the vampire hunter rather than the vampire. Cushing did not actually play Frankenstein again for Hammer until 1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein, the film with which Universal allowed Hammer to produce a Universal-style Frankenstein picture with New Zealand-born wrestler Kiwi Kingston as the Karoloff-esque version of the monster.

Peter Cushing as Frankenstein, in Revenge of Frankenstein. Iconic.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia commons.

The changing tastes of the 1960s brought more blood and more sexuality to Hammer’s two mainstay series. Lee was lured back to the role of Dracula in 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but with Van Helsing replaced by Andrew Keir’s rifle-toting, vampire hunting monk. Cushing continued to play Frankenstein in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Lee reprised Dracula again in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), as well as playing the Dracula-esque title character in Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966). Both men appeared together in The Gorgon (1964), which curiously transplanted the Greek legendary monster to Transylvania, presumably to save money on adding columns to their many Central European village sets. Neither man appeared in The Plague of Zombies (1966) or The Reptile (1966), but neither film suffered for it, and both featured themes of a corrupt aristocracy importing supernatural horrors from overseas as a form of punishment for imperialism that would appear infrequently in other films of the era. Lee would appear alone in The Devil Rides Out (1968), an adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel of the same name, written by Richard Matheson and directed by Hammer’s stalwart Terence Fisher. That same year, Hammer was awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry for their contribution to the UK economy. It was appropriately presented on the steps of Castle Dracula at Pinewood Studios. The only way from here was down, and Hammer was unable to stop once they started in that direction.

Outside of horror, during their heyday Hammer would produce thrillers, swashbucklers, science fiction, comedies, and prehistoric adventures. The latter featured special effects by the American maestro of stop motion, Ray Harryhausen. Hammer and Harryhausen attempted several times during the sixties and even into the early 70s to remake King Kong, but were rebuffed time and again by General Tire. General Tire owned the soul of RKO-Pictures, whom they had run into the ground in the late 1950s. Hammer must have been incensed when General Tire sold the rights to Dino De Laurentis in 1974. Hammer’s One Million Years B.C., featuring Harryhausen’s effects, at least entered the pop culture lexicon with a publicity photograph of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini used in the film became a best-selling pinup. It would also feature as a story element in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. The pinup poster, that is... Neither Tim Robbins nor Morgan Freeman wore a fur bikini in that film.

Not Morgan Freeman.

Film available from HMV.

The success of Hammer’s technicolour Gothic horror films inspired similar productions from companies on both sides of the Atlantic. American International Pictures, which had been reviving monster films in the United States already when the Hammer pictures successfully landed on US shores, released a cycle of eight adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe (strictly speaking, only seven of them were Poe adaptations. The eighth slapped a Poe title onto a H. P. Lovecraft tale) produced by Roger Corman and frequently starring Vincent Price. Corman would also offer a young director his first mainstream film if he could make it using funds left over from a recently completed film. Dementia 13 would not be Francis Ford Coppola’s best effort, but his time working with Corman was influential. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, having relocated to the UK, created their own production company in 1962 under the name Amicus Productions. They had previously produced The City of the Dead in 1960, a film made in the UK but so aimed at the US market that the largely British cast, including Christopher Lee, adopt American accents. Amicus would specialise in portmanteau horror film’s inspired by Ealing’s Dead of Night. They would release seven between 1965 and 1974, two of which were adaptations of EC Comic’s long defunct titles Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973). Even after the Amicus wound up, Subotsky would continue producing anthology horror films from Canada, producing two from that country in the earlier style as well as co-producing a similar effort adapting Stephen King’s short stories in 1985 as Cat’s Eye. Amicus also adapted the BBC’s Doctor Who or, more specifically, the extra-terrestrial, genocidal pepper pots from that series as Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966) with Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing as Dr Who (not the Doctor). Tigon British Film Productions was founded in 1966 and would introduce the folk horror subgenre with Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).

The 1960s were a time of great change in film, in the UK, in the US, and elsewhere around the world. Hammer and its imitators had always traded on the violent and sexual content of their films. However, what was considered pushing the envelope for violent and sexual content in the late 1960s was massively different from the late 1950s. To use the modern parlance, their content was not as edgy as it once was, and they were beginning to suffer for it. What followed were several years of attempting to hit upon their next big success with varying results.

Cinema audiences in the late 1960s did not have to turn to a film featuring Count Dracula to see blood on the silver screen. Dramas like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and even westerns like The Wild Bunch (1969) had violence and gore that went beyond that of Hammer and managed to be better produced at the same time.

Even within the horror genre, modern set horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead (both 1968) were making the films of Hammer look positively restrained in comparison to the terror and violence they showed. Hammer could not go much further on the violent content without incurring the wrath of the scissor-happy BBFC, so they had to pursue other options.

Hammer tried to target a younger market as early as Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), the film they were producing when they were given the Queen’s Award to Industry. This was largely from director Freddie Francis and exemplified by the US poster of a buxom young woman pictured in black and white from the mouth to cleavage with two pink plasters over where Dracula’s fangs would draw blood. It told audiences “Dracula has risen from the Grave – (Obviously).” They then tried to introduce a younger successor to Lee and Cushing. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) was originally intended to never feature the Count at all, instead focusing on Ralph Bates’s Lord Courtley, an English disciple of Dracula. Warner Bros (the US distributor) refused to distribute without Dracula, forcing Hammer to convince Lee to return. Having learned their lesson, they then cast Bates as Victor Frankenstein himself in the quasi-remake, quasi-prequel The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), which also featured the future body of Darth Vader, David Prowse, as the monster. When that did not pan out, they brought Lee back once more as Dracula for the paint-by-numbers effort Scars of Dracula (1970); it was made on the cheap, released fast, and it shows.

Their next attempts brought their Gothic horror productions forward from the Victorian and/or Edwardian eras to the Swinging London of the 1960s. It’s just a shame they didn’t try that until 1972. These were inspired by the success of AIP’s Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), which was set in the modern day Los Angeles. Dracula AD 1972 reunited Lee as Dracula and Cushing as Van Helsing (albeit a descendant of the original) for the first time since 1958. Unfortunately, in addition to this reunion, there is also the lacklustre attempt at writing dialogue for a group of twenty-somethings that feels like it was lifted from a half-read youth magazine bought on expenses a WHSmith. Lee and Cushing would reunite again in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), which kept the modern setting but mixed it with science fiction and spy fiction, becoming an extended episode of The Avengers without the charm of Patrick Macnee and either Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg. The final Frankenstein film, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, was filmed in 1972 but not released until 1974, and it made for a more fitting coda to its series than the latter Dracula efforts did. It ended with Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein, alongside Shane Briant (another of the younger stars Hammer hoped would take the torch from Cushing and Lee) as his assistant taking the latest murderous rampage of one of his creations in his stride and eagerly begin plotting his next venture. It was also a fitting end to the Hammer Gothic cycle, being set in the vague Victorian/Edwardian Era, and compelled to continue their work despite continuing disaster.

When not courting the relevance of a modern day setting, Hammer pursued other avenues of experimentation of their film. Aligned with studios on the Continent, they attempted to increase the sexual content of their films. Their Gothic horror films had long featured a slew of beautiful actresses who often pulled double duty with EON’s James Bond adaptations. The first attempt was actually a collaboration with AIP, adapting Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, released under the title The Vampire Lovers (1970). It was Hammer’s first film starring Ingrid Pitt, who could claim the same level of horror stardom as that achieved by Cushing, Lee, and Vincent Price. As ever, the BBFC loomed over Hammer to object to the lesbian themes of the work. Hammer snuck by pointing out that the themes were present in the original work, a ploy which caused the censor to back down. Though much of the film is clearly geared towards titillation as much as it is horror, it also marked the beginning of the last creative spurt of Hammer. It was followed by two sequels: Lust for a Vampire (1971), which seemed to exist for titillation as well as camp; and Twins of Evil (1972), which, despite the gimmick of casting the first identical twin Playboy Playmates (Mary and Madeleine Collinson) had a far more sober plot about puritanical witch burnings, Satanism, and good vs evil. 1971 also saw three similar efforts released: Ingrid Pitt starred as Countess Dracula, inspired by the historical Elizabeth Báthory; Valerie Leon played an Egyptian mummy deliberately not wrapped in bandages in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (an adaptation of Bram Stocker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars); Martine Beswick alongside Ralph Bates as Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which added a gender swap to Stevenson’s tale alongside historical murderers Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare.

More experimental vampire films of the era included Vampire Circus, which balanced the sexual content of the 1970s films with the vampirism as a social disease element of the Dracula-less early 60s efforts. Then there was Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, the only directorial effort from Brian Clemens who had previously acted as script editor and main writer for The Avengers, alongside Adam Adamant Lives!, The Baron, and The Persuaders. Captain Kronos brough a similar sensibility to Hammer, being their only swashbuckling horror film that, due to budget constraints, was unable to be realised in its original version which veered close to Steampunk whilst maintaining the sexual subtext of Hammer’s 1970s efforts. The final vampire effort from Hammer was an international co-production with the legendary Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires brought back Cushing as Van Helsing for one last kung fu hurrah, though after Satanic Rites, Lee refused to return to his most famous role and Count Dracula was played by John Forbes-Robertson. Whilst Hammer attempted to cash in on the martial arts film craze, Amicus chose to copy another emerging subgenre and added to their 1974 werewolf murder-mystery a touch of blaxploitation. This is perhaps not as incongruous when one remembers EON’s Bond series would use blaxploitation and kung fu themes in Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) respectively. As with James Bond, it did not work out as successfully as hoped for.

One international cooperation that did not transpire for Hammer during the era was one with Japan’s Toho Studios, the company behind the Godzilla series of films. It would have been titled Nessie and gone from Scotland to the Canaries to Hong Kong, but despite promotional posters and experimental monster props from Toho, it was never produced. To their credit, Hammer tried a lot of different ways to recapture their earlier success. To their discredit, they never seemed to have a coherent plan or ability to identify what actually worked in their later films. With nowhere else to turn, they tried to do what had brought them success in the heady days of yore. To the Devil... a Daughter (1976) was the result. Like many of Hammer’s pre Curse of Frankenstein successes, it starred a past-it Hollywood C-lister in the shape of Richard Widmark. Like their prior success of The Devil Rides Out, it was an adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel. It was set in the modern day like big budget, critically acclaimed horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist (1973), and even involved the Satanic as those did.

The result was a confused mess of poor special effects, a plot that veers from non-existent to incomprehensible with no middle ground, and full-frontal nudity from fourteen year old German actor Nastassja Kinski. Kinski has since said she felt exploited in her early films and if she had been able to, she would have refused nudity. It was a shameless attempt by Hammer to keep the increased sexual content of their 1970s films, despite the exploitation of an underage actor.

They never made another horror film.

The sweet American money had long since dried up (the last Hammer film produced with US financing was The Vampire Lovers), their minor success at the UK box office was no match for the profits they had previously received from international distribution. Hammer Films ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Their last film was a 1979 remake of Alfred Hithcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, starring Elliott Gould and Cybil Shepherd. They went into liquidation that same year. Their death preceded the UK censors and tabloids turning against horror films again in the 1980s with the video nasties debacle.

The horror output of Hammer Films Productions remains influential in film beyond its home shores. As early as 1966, their output was parodied in the long-running Carry On series as Carry On Screaming. In 1978, singer Kate Bush released the song Hammer Horror as the first single from her second album Lionheart. Later, American directors Tim Burton and Tom McLoughlin identified the Hammer films as influences on their films Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), respectively. On UK television, Hammer films provided influence or material for parody to programmes as diverse as Doctor Who, Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible, The League of Gentlemen, and The Two Ronnies.

Television would also provide a home for the Hammer name soon after their 1979 liquidation, with the anthology Hammer House of Horror running for 13 episodes on ITV in 1980. A later revival in 2007 after the hibernating company was bought by a Dutch firm seemed to indicate Hammer would return to making horror films regularly again. These efforts have been stop-start and only a handful are in the Gothic tradition of the earlier Hammer works, most prominently The Woman in Black (2012) starring Daniel Radcliffe. Despite outright plagiarising Marvel Studio’s logo of their famous flashing within the studio name, there seemed to little interest in making a concerted effort at horror film production.

Could Hammer have hit upon a successful formula in the 1970s and survived that decade? Possibly, it likely depends on them stumbling upon a success before their willingness to finance horror films dries up. Perhaps they could have formed series around younger stars like Ralph Bates and Shane Briant without having them step into the roles of Lee and Cushing. Perhaps Captain Kronos could have taken them into the adventure genre as a continuation. Perhaps Nessie could have saved them. Perhaps it would just be a stay of execution given the horror controversies of the 1980s that would keep UK horror films few and far between for the rest of the 20th Century could have put Hammer in the sights of the tabloids.

Discuss this article here.

Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland after the UK was on the losing side in the Great War.


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