By Ryan Fleming
Three of the greats: Lugosi, Lee, Pallance. The Vampire Strikes Back.
Image from Wikimedia.
In writing about the history, even alternate history, of popular films, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of just giving the history of those films from the perspective of the United States. Horror films are no exception, but to do so you really have to be willingly ignoring content from the rest of the world. You cannot talk about the 1930s Hollywood horror films without talking about the 1920s German expressionist pictures. You cannot talk about the giant atomic monsters of the 1950s without talking about the Japanese creation Godzilla. Similarly, you cannot talk about the technicolour Gothic horror films from the 1950s to 1970s without talking about the output of the United Kingdom.
The UK has had a fraught relationships with horror films since they first emerged. This has ranged from extremes of the BBFC creating a special classification rating for horror films to a horror studio being awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry for their contribution to the British economy. Horror films have been subject to bans as a convenient target of vilification, up to and including being blamed for very real crimes. Despite how much the horror genre, not just films, owes to the works of 19th Century authors like Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker, it has frequently been treated as the red-headed stepchild of filmmaking in the UK.
Two names stand out as evoking the era of colour Gothic horror films made in the United Kingdom. The first, for the most prominent company making said films: Hammer Film Productions, or the House of Hammer. So famous for their horror output during this period that to the unfamiliar the studio’s name is applied to the output of their competitors such as Amicus Productions and Tigon British Films Production. The second name, from the trademarked brand of theatrical blood made by a retired pharmacist in Dorset and named as a pun on a London thoroughfare: is Kensington Gore.
Though horror films in the UK may have enjoyed their greatest mainstream popularity, both domestically and globally, they had precursors going all the way back to the 1910s. Spiritualism figured heavily in these early efforts into the 1920s, as it did in culture more generally following the violence and death of the First World War. The 1930s brought more pictures aligned with those of the United States, but critical dismissal and tabloid revulsion kept many of these from being produced and most are now considered lost films. It was during that decade that the British Board of Film Censors actually created a new classification rating specifically for horror films: the “H” rating. “H” as in “Horrific”.
Discussing horror films of the post-Great War period always involves applying the term as a retronym. Horror films made intentionally as such began in the 1930s with Universal Pictures. Those German films now regarded as horror are regarded as such from their association of distorted imagery, madness and violence. Similarly, the American melodramas starring Lon Chaney receive the label for their emphasis on the grotesque. Both of these trends can be seen as arising from the experience of their relative countries in the Great War. A Germany reeling from the psychological effects of losing the War, a United States attempting to assimilate veterans back into society after their return. More surviving examples of British horror films from the period might have revealed another strand. One focusing on spiritualism as in The Other Person (1921), or else on the Egyptology craze as in The Beetle (1919). The latter actually adapted from the 1897 novel of the same name by Richard Marsh, which actually outsold Stoker’s Dracula in its original publication. Both of these examples also deal with possession by another as a source of horror, something that would not become a horror cliché in film until half a century later.
The public mourning for the deceased of the Great War and prominence of spiritualism saw the themes of vengeful ghosts and spirits subside in favour of the afterlife as a place of comfort. As such, even those few examples that could be described as horror fell into obscurity. The arrival on UK shores of the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein from Hollywood’s Universal Studios (the latter directed by and starring Englishmen) brought a new inspiration. Early efforts included Castle Sinister (1932), a mad scientist tale set in Devon, and The Ghoul (1934), another one drawing on Ancient Egypt. The latter actually starred Boris Karloff, who was in the midst of a contract dispute with Universal, alongside Cedric Hardwicke and Ernest Thesinger, both of whom would also become familiar faces in the Universal horror films. Though unfathomable to a modern audience, censors at the time were so worried about the impact of those films on children that they introduced the aforementioned “H” rating. The Ghoul was the first film to be rated “H”, and a further 54 films would be rated as such before the classification was dropped in 1951. Almost 70% of the films rated “H” were American productions. The “H” rating, along with other censorship or outright bans elsewhere in Europe, may have contributed to the pause in Universal making horror films from 1936 to 1939. The few British horror films made under such conditions during the 1930s had to jump through some amazing semantic hoops to try and avoid the rating. A press release for The Ghoul called it “thrilling and uncanny” whilst explicitly denying it was “horrific”. Others such as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Face at the Window (1939) were marketed as melodramas.
This won't end well....
The return of a general European War in 1939 ended any experimentation in horror films. Their production was outright banned in 1942 for the duration, their malign influence on the mostly working-class film audiences was considered detrimental to the war effort. Even after the ban was lifted in 1945, British horror films were few and far between for the rest of the decade. One picture stands out from the UK during that decade not only as a horror film, but as a classic horror film. Dead of Night, a portmanteau or anthology film produced by Ealing Studios in 1945. Unlike the 1930s British horror films, it owed practically nothing of its thematic elements or style to the Universal horror films. The horror portrayed therein veered from the uncanny to ghosts to the comedic to psychological. It also stood out for its very modern setting, being one of the earliest British films released to make no reference to the recently ended Second World War. Even the heavily German accented Frederick Valk (a Hamburg-born Jewish actor who had fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s) needs no explanation. Dead of Night was not the first time Ealing had touched upon the supernatural. The 1944 drama The Halfway House used premonitions, seances, time travel, and the neutrality of the Irish Free State in its plot. Much of this continues the tradition of the spiritualist inspired films of earlier decades. Dead of Night was well received and even managed to avoid the “H” rating, which may provide some evidence that the BBFC really just considered the films of Universal and their imitators as worthy of the label. More importantly, it was also a commercial success and Ealing Studios indicated their main focus would be on more escapist films of that sort. It was not to be.
More successful were the critically derided Gainsborough melodramas. Period set pieces that even had their own stars publicly deriding them. In an amusing case of turnabout being fair play, many of those Gainsborough pictures fell afoul of the notorious Hays Code in the United States showing censorship worked both ways across the Atlantic. Their success at the UK box office was undeniable, and the next effort from Ealing and some of the filmmakers behind Dead of Night was a costumed drama of their own: Pink String and Sealing Wax. It was not as successful, or well received, as either Dead of Night or its Gainsborough competitors. Ealing soon hit upon success with their comedy films, and their efforts on those between 1948 and 1955 remain the content for which they are most remembered.
Had Ealing chosen to continue on the path they were from The Halfway House to Dead of Night, their production methods and quality could just as easily have turned to horror as they did to comedy. The UK would have had their premier horror studio a decade ahead of time, one that used recognisable modern settings, one that went for a more subtle brand of horror than that of Universal or the later Hammer films. Their themes in Dead of Night allowed them to get around the “H” classification, and even had profound impact on cosmological and astrophysical theories. The UK’s horror boom was still to come, and in a lovely case of irony their path to success was based on exploiting their BBFC classification.
Hammer Film Productions was already over twenty years old by the time they had their first major success in the horror genre. They were founded in 1934. They went into bankruptcy and liquidation in 1937. The name survived after the production company was purchased by their distributor, Exclusive Films, which was partly owned by Hammer founder William Hinds in a stunning coincidence. Until 1955 they largely survived making “quota-quickies”, cheaply produced films intended to fill gaps in cinema schedules between productions from bigger studios. Despite the output that would make them famous and their source material, Hammer’s first significant foray into the horror genre had its roots in that most modern of mediums – television.
The Quatermass Experiment was originally broadcast by the BBC, then the UK's only television service, in the summer of 1953. It was from Manx screenwriter Nigel Kneale, and dealt with the return of the first crewed spaceflight overseen by Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group. It was also the first British science fiction production aimed at an adult audience and was a massive success. In the days before on-demand content, home video, or even the BBC having the foresight to record their live programmes, there was no way to extend the life of the serial beyond its original broadcast. Enter Hammer, who enquired after the film rights in the days following the broadcast of the final episode. Kneale too recognised the film potential of his work but met with hesitance in shopping it to other studios as it would likely receive an “X” rating from the BBFC. “X” having replaced “H” as a more general adults-only classification in 1951. Hammer, on the other hand, revelled in the classification and even retitled the film as The Quatermass Xperiment. The tale was as successful on film as it was on television, and brought the name of Hammer to the world.
Hammer wanted another success, and wished to make a sequel, but Kneale disliked some of the changes made to the material as well as the casting of American Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. That he received no extra payment from the sale of the film rights as he was a BBC employee when he wrote the serial. Undeterred, Hammer pressed forward with X the Unknown, starring another US import Dean Jagger as the very Quatermass-like Dr. Adam Royston. Fortunately for Hammer, the Conservative government oversaw the launch of the ITV network, and the BBC needed another pub-emptying evening serial. Quatermass II was broadcast by the BBC, and Hammer again purchased the rights and adapted the serial as Quatermass 2. Ostensibly named for the new spacecraft designed by Quatermass, it is also the first instance of entitling a sequel to a work as the original name with the number two attached as a suffix. Yep, blame Kneale.
During the same time, Hammer looked for US distribution partners and through one of them received a script from young American filmmakers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky for an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hammer was unsure of the script, as it hewed closely to Universal’s Son of Frankenstein and were worried about a lawsuit from Universal despite the original work being long in the public domain. The script went through various re-writes trying to eliminate anything that might resemble too closely the Universal films. The final treatment, by Jimmy Sangster, so impressed the studio that it even became a full colour production.
The eventual film, The Curse of Frankenstein, focused more on the creator, here called Victor Frankenstein, and played by Peter Cushing, than the monster, played by Christopher Lee. The colour filming encourage a hitherto unseen amount of blood in the film, which had either been absent or hidden behind the monochrome in other films. It was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, despite infrequent threats from the BBFC that they might not be able to pass a film with a script like Sangster’s. Its success led to partnerships between Hammer with major US studios like Columbia, who distributed the quickly produced sequel The Revenge of Frankenstein, and even Universal International. The latter gave Hammer carte blanche to remake the old Universal films. Not that they would not have continued what they were doing without an agreement, it only having been finalised at a whopping 80 pages after Hammer had finished filming their adaptation of Dracula. It paired Cushing and Lee again, with the former as Professor Van Helsing and the latter Count Dracula. In addition to more blood, it also introduced fanged vampires to cinema.
Peter Cushing opens fire on the Mummy...
Cushing and Lee would be paired again in Hammer’s 1959 production of The Mummy, which combined elements of the first three sequels to Universal’s The Mummy – The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Ghost. Less successfully, Hammer would also remake The Phantom of the Opera in 1962 and The Old Dark House in 1963. The latter was a collaboration with American producer William Castle, but even his unique promotional abilities could not help it. Notably, neither of those productions paired Cushing and Lee. Not saying that was the reason for their lack of success, but a pattern had emerged in the successful ones. Another remake, of The Invisible Man, never even made it as far as production.
... with little effect.
Beyond remakes, Hammer also continued to produce their own original horror features. There was a horror-leaning adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville. Curiously, despite the wealth of material, Hammer never produced another Sherlock Holmes film for the rest of their Gothic period. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll made Hammer the first studio to have adaptations of the three major 19th Century horror novels under their belt. They continued to butt heads with the BBFC too, sometimes having to backtrack on productions to meet the censors requirements. Hammer wanted to make a film entitled The Rape of Sabena, about the Spanish Inquisition, and had several Spanish sets ready for production to begin. When the BBFC outright refused to pass the script, it became the 1961 werewolf film The Curse of the Werewolf, based on Guy Endore’s 1935 novel Werewolf of Paris, and featuring Oliver Reed in his first starring role in a film. Similarly, Hammer wanted to adapt Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend and even went so far as to fly the author to the UK in order to write the script – titled The Night Creatures. The BBFC again refused to pass the script, but Hammer had already promised Universal a film entitled Night Creatures, so retitled their 1962 adaptation of Richard Thorndike’s Doctor Syn character, Captain Clegg, as Night Creatures for its US release. Retitling films was standard practice in the US at the time – The Quatermass Xperiment had become The Creeping Unknown, without the “X” certificate as a pun; Quatermass 2 became Enemy from Space, without a first Quatermass for it to be a second; and Dracula became Horror of Dracula, presumably to avoid confusion with the Universal film.
By the time Ringo Starr joined The Beatles in 1962, Hammer had already hit upon a winning model for horror films. A model they would keep running until the wheels fell off. Their success was not limited to horror, however, and they continued to make forays into other genres. They also inspired imitation from studios on both sides of the Atlantic. They would never have stumbled into that model if they had not been forwarded a script by two young American filmmakers whilst looking for American distribution partners. To Hammer’s credit, they never did forget the films that made their success.
This article continues in Part 2, where we look at the later developments of Hammer.
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