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Tales from Development Hell: Nessie

By Ryan Fleming.

A potential saviour.

Picture Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Can the existence of an entire film studio depend on the existence of a single film? There are numerous examples of studios whose success can be traced to a single film. New Line Cinema acquired their nickname “The House That Freddy Built” after their long-term survival was confirmed by the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, and innumerable sequels featuring its villain Freddy Kruger.

If there are such instances of success or failure for an entire studio depending on a single film, does it also hold true that a film never made could have saved a studio that historically collapsed soon after? The question is pondered when considering the unmade film Nessie. An international co-production between the UK’s Hammer Film Productions and Japan’s Toho that would have featured the legendary Loch Ness Monster cutting a swathe of destruction from Scotland to Hong Kong. It came as the UK studio was in their final years trying to hit upon one success that could return them to glory. Instead, they went into liquidation in 1979 with Nessie still stuck in pre-production.

Could Nessie have been enough to turn around the fortunes of Hammer? Would it have led to further international collaborations between them and Toho? Would there have been a revival of giant monster pictures in the West as a result? Could Nessie have done for lochs what Jaws did for beaches?

Before considering the impact, or lack thereof, Nessie might have had if it had entered production and seen release, the relative positions of both Hammer and Toho by the mid-1970s have to be understood, along with what we do know about the plans for the film and the intended filmmakers that would have overseen production.

Nessie was officially announced at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1976, but even at the time of that announcement, it might have been too late for Hammer. Two months earlier they had released the supremely sleazy To the Devil... A Daughter, the details of which can be read in another article on the studio. It would be their last horror film. Changing tastes in film coincided with recession in the United Kingdom, where Hammer had previously always been able to count on for box office receipts. Now, cinemas throughout the country were being converted into bingo halls and Hammer could no longer rely even on the domestic box office. International success was no longer just a case of better profits, it was becoming a case of survival. They had already tried increasing the sex appeal of their films (The Vampire Lovers, 1970, and many others), tried a collaboration with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers to cash in on the martial arts craze (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, 1974), tried bringing their Gothic horror into the modern day (Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula), and with what turned out to be their last effort, they tried to ape what Hollywood was doing with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) on a fraction of the budget and a misunderstanding of what made those films successful.

On the other side of the world, Toho was going through some changes of their own. Like Hammer, they hit upon success in the 1950s and had been producing films in that vein since then. Unlike Hammer, Toho had firmer financial footing and had a far more diverse output. Their most famous creation remains Godzilla, so successful that sequels to the 1954 original topped the box office in Japan in both 1964 and 1966 (Mothra vs Godzilla and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, respectively). In 1975, they released Terror of Mechagodzilla, which became the least attended Godzilla film in Japan. This came after the original Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima retired from suit acting following 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan. Production of further kaiju films was put on hold at Toho, which had seen decling returns throughout the 1970s. However, Toho had no intention of abandoning production of films in the Godzilla series permanently. Unlike Hammer, Toho seemingly had fair grasp in what had brought them success enough to put effort into development. Toho also were not about to shutter their special effects department, and a use was found for them when Toho entered into an agreement with Hammer to contribute a portion of budget and special effects for a project they were beginning. The effects were provided in exchange for distribution right to the subsequent film in Asia, the film in question being Nessie.

Those artillery pieces look awfully close to Godzilla. From the 1954 film Godzilla.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The genesis of Hammer’s Nessie is as elusive as the creature itself. The earliest form with a name associated was a script treament by Clark Reynolds, who had previously scripted The Viking Queen (1967) for Hammer. It was on the basis of this that Hammer and Toho made their agreement, and the latter were eager to see a script. Christopher Wicking, a mainstay of both Hammer and American International Pictures, turned in a first draft. It then passed to Bryan Forbes, who developed the script and was attached to direct. Forbes had previously been head of EMI films which had produced several of Hammer’s early 1970s efforts. By his own admission he was not a horror fan, but under his auspices EMI produced the psychological thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) with Roger Moore and had recently directed The Stepford Wives (1975), both of which could be considered at least horror adjacent. The eventual script from Forbes that did the rounds internally was a whopping 240 pages long. It was described as King Kong meets Jaws, the latter becoming the highest grossing film of all time following its 1975 release. The actual details of the plot remain scant with only a few details known.

The film was to open with chemicals being spilled into Loch Ness, awakening the dormant creature, and sending it on a spree if destruction from the North Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Forbes recalled the destruction of oil rigs in the Indian Ocean was to have been a plot point. However, there were problems from the Hammer end before the film could even enter production.

Ripe for destruction.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hammer had entered into an agreement with a studio on the other side of the world to produce a film before they even had a finished script. Toho entered into an agreement to do special effects for a film in the manner which they had perfected twenty years before. In the days when communicating across the world was a far more difficult prospect, this meant two different pre-productions running simultaneously. One ran much smoother than the other.

Nessie was originally conceived with a budget of approximately US$3 million; by the time it was announced at Cannes, it was being promoted as a US$7 million production. Per historic exchange rates, US$7 million equated to £3,829,000 of of 13 May, 1976 when Cannes opened that year. Hammer’s last horror feature, released in March, was budgeted at £360,000, less than 10% of what they were advertising would be spent on Nessie. To be blunt, Hammer had no way to come up with even the original estimated budget of £1.6 million. Toho’s most recent Godzilla films, where Toho handled the entire production, were each budgeted at approximately US$1.2 million. Even if Toho had been generous enough to contribute the budget of an entire Godzilla film to the Hammer production, it would still be less than the US$3 million the UK studio originally looked to spend. All Hammer had to show was a teaser poster advertising an Easter 1977 release with a list of producers including Hammer board member Euan Lloyd, Hammer studio head Michael Carreras, and, bizarrely, British broadcaster David Frost. Frost had been working on his own Loch Ness monster picture, tentatively titled Carnivore, before Hammer brought him on board rather than compete against each other.

Hammer were unsurprisingly unable to secure the budget, set at US$7 million because that was the estimated budget of Jaws. They went, cap in hand, to one of their former US distributors, Columbia Pictures, for investment. When that did not work out, they also reached out to producers in West Germany and South Africa, to no avail. It was also still advertised for a 1978 release, with Toho including it in their catalogue of films for the upcoming year. Any chance for Nessie ended when Hammer entered liquidation in 1979. Hammer had tried everything they could in filmmaking to recapture their successful yesterdays. Nessie came at a time when they had exhausted all their chances, and not even a willing, and more than capable, international partner was enough to them see through another roll of the dice. The project was too ambitious and budgeted far too high for what Hammer was capable of, even with Toho footing part of the bill. It was a case of trying too much too late. Nessie was not able to turn around Hammer’s fortunes because they were already past the point of no return.

Toho had far better success in their end of the production. Concept art and even models were created for the title character. Photos of a production model appeared in a Japanese magazine, the stills were dated 1976, well in advance of the originally planned Easter 1977 release. Special effects maestro Teruyoshi Nakano, the lead special effects director on most of Toho’s kaiju output since 1969, was tasked with realising the legendary Scottish beastie on the big screen. One can’t help but feel that Hammer led Toho up the garden path with how far along they were with the production. Toho ploughed forward with their end of the arrangement while Hammer struggled to put together the money needed for theirs. After it was clear that Nessie was never going to enter production, Nakano moved onto other productions. There was a longstanding rumour amongst fans of Toho’s kaiju films that the prop of the Loch Ness Monster eventually found its way into film via Princess from the Moon (1987), also under the special effects direction of Nakano. Howere, this has never been confirmed by any official sources. And like all details about Nessie, those involved in the production are long deceased, leaving the many questions about this film unanswered. Nakano was the last person involved in Nessie to pass away, at the age of 86 in June 2022.

Nessie wound up as elusive as the legendary creature on which it was based. The limited material and information available on it remain of interest to fans of both Hammer’s horror films and Toho’s kaiju films, but it remains an obscure subject. What if the two studios had been able to see the film through production to release for the originally planned Easter 1977 schedule?

Let’s assume that Hammer is able to reign in some of their ambitions for the film and the original estimated budget of US$3 million is retained. That would be a difficult prospect, but it would not be in the realms of fantasy as the US$7 million announced at Cannes most definitely was. Their solely produced remake of The Lady Vanishes was budgeted at £2 million, equivalent to a little over US$3.6 million in May 1979.

Could Nessie have saved Hammer films from hibernation for nearly three decades? It would certainly have a better chance than To the Devil... a Daughter. It may have been for the best if Hammer had decided to go all in on Nessie instead of producing their sleaziest horror film that might have been their death sentence. Nessie going forward earlier might help its potential success in other ways too. If the Easter 1977 release date was intended as the UK release, it could be assumed they would want to get it in theatres in the US as soon as possible. There was no guarantee, of course, that it would be distributed quickly. For instance, the last few Godzilla films from Toho in the 1970s were only released in the US 2 or even 3 years after their original release in Japan. The Hammer/Toho co-production at least would not have to go through a dubbing process and may be an easier sell with an English-speaking cast. There is a danger zone for Nessie in spring 1977 at the US box office, starting from when Star Wars was released to US cinemas for the first time. It is ironic that a film so clearly inspired by the success of Jaws may be battling at the box office with the film which would dethrone Jaws as the most successful film of all time.

Against Star Wars, Nessie would not stand a chance.

An easy victor over Nessie.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Suppose, however, that Nessie was released later in 1977, closer to the end of summer. Star Wars might actually provide some small help to Nessie, being a science fiction-leaning monster film. It also begs the question if Hammer’s survival might not be one dependent upon horror. Hammer’s special effects were usually in the vein of white plastic fangs and buckets of Kensington Gore. What they did have was actors and sets. Toho had the special effects, but the success of their films in the largest market in the world at the time was hindered by the unwillingness of that audience to see a film in a language other than English. In addition to kaiju, Toho made another form of tokusatsu (special effects) features based more around science fiction adventure than monsters including Atragon (1963). Hammer had their first major successes at the box office with the science fiction television adaptations The Quartermass Xperiment (1955) and Quartermass 2 (1957). If they had been able to successfully produce Nessie, might that lead to other collaborations in the science fiction genre? Historically, Toho produced The War in Space (1977) following the success of Star Wars for release in December of the same year. It was a remake of Atragon, swapping the undersea setting for an outer space one.

Could Hammer and Toho have collaborated on science fiction films in the late 1970s following a successful co-production of Nessie? Both studios together would have had the capabilities. Toho had the special effects, Hammer had access to the actual production crews that made Star Wars. A change in genre focus might have benefitted Hammer for the 1980s, since their features would be unable to compete with the emerging slasher genre which could be produced in the United States far cheaper than Hammer’s Gothic horrors could in the UK. Such films would see the video nasties controversy emerge in the UK where the more violent slasher horror films came under extreme censorship and backlash in the country. Toho, for their part, might resurrect Godzilla quicker than they did without Hammer. Historically, they released The Return of Godzilla in 1984 to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the original film. A new Godzilla could have wound up the next big project of Hammer/Toho, with Toho in the driving seat but still making use of the production facilities and actors Hammer had at their disposal. It might make its way to the United States in short order, without the need to heavily re-edit the film to localise it to their country – as happened with The Return of Godzilla, which was released in the US as Godzilla 1985 a year after the film was originally released in Japan.

Nessie could have opened up a whole new avenue of genre filmmaking for Hammer, albeit accidentally from the coincidental timing with the release of Star Wars. It also could have led them into a mutually beneficial relationship with Japan’s Toho, and helped the studio that dripped blood keep making films past 1979.

Like many unmade films, the Nessie fans’ picture in their heads is likely far better than any that would have been released had it actually entered production. However, its mere existence when it would have been reeleased could have been enough to help one studio avoid a long hiatus from film production and provide an avenue for another studio into markets that they struggled to enter without all but remaking their own film for the local audience.

The notion of Peter Cushing eventually facing down Godzilla is a tantalising one, but purely speculative. Hammer needed a dose of competence they were lacking to get the film made. It came down to money, and the company had seemingly exhausted all their chances at that with To the Devil... a Daughter. Even if Nessie had not saved Hammer, it would have been a more fitting end for the studio’s horror strand than the lamentable film we got in 1976 instead. Both Hammer and Toho were in the doldrums when they agreed to work together, but only one of them seemed to have the patience needed to find the greener pastures again.

A final thought on Nessie: if it was to be released in Easter 1977 and its producers needed to promote the film, especially if they wanted to use someone that was very familiar with British television and journalism, then David Frost might not be free for other ventures around that time. Specifically, he might never interview a certain former US President and wind up portrayed by Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon (2008). There was a chance David Frost could have swapped Richard Nixon for the Loch Ness Monster.

Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by Sealion Press, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland.

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