Whenever I talk to my dad about horror, he reminisces about the days of Hammer. How all of the horror stories he loved, previously only available in black and white, were suddenly brought to lurid life in bright color, the classics portrayed by amazing British actors, including Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Peter Cushing (incidentally, those are all men who would become important supporting characters in more modern genre film), and brought to life by solid British directors. For those who grew up on the Universal versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, Werewolf, the Phantom of the Opera, and more, seeing them told seriously and in color yet, was a revelation.
The Brits were the first to bring a real sexuality to horror - Hammer films were NOT for kids, unlike the drive in horror movies that came previously. They were over the top, but not necessarily campy. It was major for a teenager to see these movies come to life for the first time on the big screen.
But Hammer went beyond Horror, trying almost every conceivable genre there is, including Science Fiction right off the bat with X The Unknown (The frightening British version of sorts of the Blob) and The Quater Mass series (think X-Files precursor), their take on Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles starring Cushing and Lee, plus fantasy adventure, swashbucklers, crime dramas, heist films, space westerns, dinosaur epics, psychological thrillers, comedies, costume dramas - anything you can imagine. They were sort of the British answer to American International, which also launched the careers of several actors and directors.
This month, Titan Books celebrates Hammer Films with The Hammer Vault, a beautiful 175 page book chronicling the history of Hammer, going through almost every single film individually, detailing any important facts regarding production, distribution and reception, though mostly filled with a wide array of scanned images, wherein lies the true value of this book.
For every Hammer movie (all the way to Let Me In, when the label was resurrected after years of dormancy) we get items including reviews, lobby cards, original publicity material, posters, production stills, contracts, premiere invites and tickets, images of strange promotional tie-ins, magazine covers, congratulatory letters, photos of original props, behind the scenes and publicity event shots, Peter Cushing's watercolor sketchings (for realsies) and the list goes on and on. My single favorite piece? Christopher Lee's notes on some script pages from Taste The Blood Of Dracula, one of the many sequels to the original. He had become so over it, his notes literally include the words "Ridiculous lines" "Absurd" and simply "No." In second place - a snapshot of Sammy Davis Jr. visiting the studio and meeting Christopher Lee. Apparently he was a huge fan and the photo must be seen to be believed.
Each movie gets one-two pages worth of material, so with every turn, we are witness to a new chapter in the history of Hammer. We can follow the exact arc of Hammer's "bid for critical legitimacy", begin to notice patterns in when their films succeeded and when they failed, when the studio became particularly enthralled with one particular genre, and so on. It's the entire history of a studio condensed into one book and every drop of it is fascinating, even for me, someone who isn't a long time Hammer fan, but is a staunch lover of film and its lineage.
Reading through this whole vault will also arm with you with some incredible trivia. Not only will you know that Christopher Lee played Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Mummy, but you'll also know he didn't receive top billing from Hammer until 1960's The Terror of the Tongs. How about the fact that Hammer was the first film production company to receive the Queen's Award to Industry (now called The Queen's Award for Enterprise). Or did you know Hammer tried to adapt I Am Legend in 1957 but the BBFC shot it down? And there's *a lot* more where that came from.
I was especially enthralled by the parallel's between Hammer's film publicity is to that of genre films of today. I always assumed that fifty years ago, no one had to worry about spoilers because the internet wasn't around to give anything away, but on the contrary, there seemed to be an utter lack of spoiler warnings when it came to these outlandish genre films. Promotional items seemed to be all about giving something away, whether via a death on a Front of House Still, or by promoting the fact that there is a twist ending anywhere possible. Hammer also seemed to pre-date even Star Wars with its genre marketing savvy, creating in world giveaways like fake newspaper headlines and cardboard masks and fangs, and encouraging movie theater owners to go all out in decorating their lobbies to create the ultimate experience, right down to ushers in full costume.
No film lover should ever turn down the opportunity to learn, especially a history this in depth about such an important studio, one which helped create the cult movie and redefine what horror could be. You truly go on a journey with the studio, feelings the ups of one classic hit after another, and the downs of never truly breaking through, critically, from disappointing Columbia enough to end their distribution deal, to the potential in the deal with 20th Century Fox, from the mid sixties shift to a focus on young women in bikinis, to the end of the classic Hammer era in 1966 when Bray studios closed it doors, and of course the beginning of the end when Anthony Hinds left in 1970, marking what former Hammer director Don Sharp called the moment "they went wrong", as Hammer entered into its surreal attempt at reinvention in the early 70s. ( I also learned where my parents jokingly referring to me as "She who must be obeyed" when I was a child, came from. I was the youngest *and* the only girl, what do you expect from little me?!) But Hammer, despite many relocations and continued changes in its board of directors, kept going, for better or worse, until the remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1978. If you've ever been curious what exactly happened to cause Hammer's long hiatus from production, here is where to discover all the answers.
Towards the end of the book, there is a great section detailing the films Hammer intended to make, but were never able to. A real treat for die hard fans, who would have loved to have seen these movies. I mean, Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls?! What does that even mean?! Nessie, Vamperella?!?! Yes, please! It's a shame they all fell through, but fun to think of what could have been.
This book truly makes the reader feel a part of the Hammer experience and brings a new appreciation for the fact that the company has finally been revived, better yet that its first theatrical release was Matt Reeve's solid remake of Let the Right One In, Let Me In. Now that I feel invested in Hammer, I want its next film, The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is to be a success, both critically and commercially, something Hammer has always strived for and rarely grasped. But if Let Me In is any indication of the direction Hammer hopes to take horror in in these modern times, steering the course from torture porn to atmospheric, gothic horror? I'm totally on board.
So who is The Hammer Vault a good gift choice for? Obviously a great gift for the older film fans in your life who lived through these movies, but also for horror fans or true film fans of any age, these movies are classics and this book offers the history of Hammer beautifully and succinctly. Sure, you can go deeper from here, but it pretty much tells you everything you need to know. I for one am glad I read through all 175 pages. I feel like I got a thorough education in an area I didn't even know I was lacking in. Highly recommended.