Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and More: A Hammer Horror Primer

The Curse of Frankenstein. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hammer Film Productions, the iconic British film studio, has always been synonymous with sex and violence. It’s a fact that many modern horror film fans either downplay or overlook, since many of their better titles are more than just showcases for blood and skin. But the promise of gore and nudity was central to Hammer’s production and advertising campaigns from the mid-1950s on.

By today’s standards, Hammer’s popular and now-iconic gothic horror films — stylish Technicolor (or Eastmancolor) updates of Universal genre staples like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man — seem quaint. But many of their best movies are united in one way: They’re simultaneously bloody and titillating, haunting and atmospheric.

On May 30, Manhattan’s Quad Cinema kicks off their gob-smacking “Hammer’s House of Horror” program, a 32-film survey of films produced by the studio. The program is the first in a two-part series, and focuses on Hammer’s output from 1956–1967. Featured films range from Hammer’s still-unnerving monster movies — like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and their increasingly graphic sequels — to a fantastic selection of equally sensational Hammer highlights from other genres, like war films and science-fiction flicks. To celebrate the Quad’s upcoming survey, Vulture has compiled a brief Hammer Horror primer, detailing the many titles, artists, and trends that helped make Hammer such a vital institution.

Family Business: James and Michael Carreras
In 1934, jeweler turned music-hall performer William Hinds officially patented the business name “Hammer Productions.” Hinds initially used the company — whose name was taken from his “William Hammer” stage name — to import B pictures and some of Hinds’s own films. This initial outing didn’t go so well for Hinds, but Hammer bounced back in 1948 after Hinds teamed up with movie-chain owner Enrique Carreras and his ambitious son James.

Initially, Hammer focused on lightweight comedies, and melodramatic adaptations of stage plays and successful BBC serials, including dated and creaky comedies of manners like What the Butler Saw (1950), Life With the Lyons (1954), and Up the Creek (1958), the last of which co-stars Peter Sellers as a crooked navy officer. James became the driving force of Hammer Productions during its most commercially successful period (until 1970) by actively securing distribution and financial deals with all of the major Hollywood studios, including United Artists, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, Columbia Pictures, and Universal Pictures. Unfortunately, James also had a big hand in leading the company to financial ruin. In 1966, he sold off Bray Studios — a palatial country manor that served as the company’s primary shooting location, thereby allowing them to significantly reduce production costs — after trying to sell the property for four years.

In 1970, James almost singlehandedly nuked the company’s vital relationship with Warner Brothers-Seven Arts: Resentful of the fact that Taste the Blood of Dracula was released in the U.S. as half of a double feature with the dismally kitschy Joan Crawford vehicle Trog, he boasted about how Scars of Dracula was financed exclusively with British money (i.e., he couldn’t convince any American backers). Enter: Michael Carreras, James’s son, who stopped his father from selling off Hammer’s name and film catalogue. Michael tried to focus the studio’s output on horror movies, though he himself would direct a couple of non-horror titles, including the ill-fated, Shaw Brothers co-produced action-thriller, Shatter (1974). Michael was also as business- and trend-savvy as James, and chose to continue his father’s initiative of leaning more heavily on sex and nudity, especially in the sexy vampire Karnstein trilogy of The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (also 1971).

Future Worlds: Aliens, Clones, and Yetis
The Quatermass Xperiment, based on the 1953 BBC television series The Quatermass Experiment written by Nigel Kneale, was one of Hammer’s first major successes. Hammer’s board of directors went so far as to celebrate the film’s ten-year anniversary in 1966 despite knowing, by this time, that fans enjoyed the film more for its horror elements than its science-fiction tropes. Still, Hammer did initially follow-up The Quatermass Xperiment — which follows macho professor-cum-adventurer Bernard Quatermass’s encounters with a fungus-like alien — with more science fiction. Frequent Hammer contributor Jimmy Sangster penned the sturdy homage/rip-off, X The Unknown (1956), a project that started out as a Quatermass sequel, but then had to be changed because of Kneale’s objections.

This was preceded by the silly two-men-for-one-girl clone melodrama The Four-Sided Triangle (1953) followed by the decent Quatermass 2 (1957), and then the classic Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Kneale also directly worked with Hammer on the understated creature feature The Abominable Snowman (1957) and the gorgeous-looking supernatural yarn The Witches (1966). After that, Hammer produced science-fiction curios like the sometimes great space oddity Moon Zero Two (1969). But the best of Hammer’s sci-fi offerings has to be the combustive mods versus the military versus evil kids drama, These Are the Damned (1962), a troubled but strong production helmed by Joseph Losey.

Universal Monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy
Hammer soon found great success with Gothic horror films that starred public domain characters previously made famous by Universal from the 1930s through the 1950s. Carreras and Hammer knew that Universal could potentially sue for, uh, ripping them off, so they tasked Sangster with making significant, lawsuit-proof changes in his script and approach.

As a result, the engrossing The Curse of Frankenstein — originally conceived as a black-and-white remake with a monster that more closely resembled Boris Karloff’s flat-topped monster — reportedly grossed 70 times its (admittedly low) budget during its initial theatrical run, after Sangster shifted his focus to Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) and not his creation (Christopher Lee). Curse was followed by a handful of sequels of varying quality: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), both of which hold up quite nicely, since they complicate Frankenstein’s comparatively straightforward characterization in Curse. Hammer also hit pay dirt with Horror of Dracula and The Mummy, and tried and failed to kick off a werewolf series with the sprawling but enjoyable The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), which is mostly notable today for its high production values — and characteristically nervy lead performance from Oliver Reed, who plays the sweaty, self-loathing title character.

Hammer’s Dracula films are generally the most consistently rewarding of their horror series: Even a disreputable later entry like Scars of Dracula (1970) is somewhat compelling, though many fans understandably prefer the moody, and far less combustive The Brides of Dracula (1960). So it’s not surprising that the studio’s other vampire flicks — Twins of Evil, Vampire Circus (1971) and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) — are some of the best films that Hammer has produced to date. Other noteworthy semi-traditional Gothic horror productions from the 1960s include The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Reptile (1966), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966).

Double Act: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee
Cushing and Lee’s star power gave immediate popularity and sustained longevity to Hammer’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy films. They both invested a lot of care and sensitivity into their performances: Cushing went so far as to study brain surgeries before playing Victor Frankenstein in several films. He also brought his impressive knowledge of Holmesian lore to his leading performance in the still somehow underrated The Hounds of the Baskervilles (1959), and applied himself in ways many actors would not (ex: he smoked a pipe during the filming of Baskervilles, despite hating the taste of tobacco).

Both men put up with a lot of mediocre scripts, personal illnesses and losses, unfortunate costumes (Hello, The Pirates of Blood River!), and grueling production schedules. Cushing struggled through the illness and death of his wife Helen while shooting a couple of Hammer films, and Lee put up with everything from debilitating physical injuries (including a bone-deep dog bite during the shooting of The Hound of the Baskerville and falling into a freshly dug grave on Dracula: Prince of Darkness) to underhanded salary negotiations. Cushing and Lee’s contributions to Hammer’s colorful history cannot be overstated.

Women in Early Horror: Playmates, Stunt Doubles, and Bette Davis
Cushing and Lee’s female co-stars played an equally integral part in the making of Hammer’s films. Unfortunately, many of these women were regularly and unabashedly exploited, even before the films were promoted with hand-painted posters that emphasize heaving and disproportionately large bosoms. Some of these women were beauty-pageant contestants, fashion models, or Playboy Playmates; some were international starlets like Ursula Andress (She), Ingrid Pitt (Countess Dracula), and Yvonne Monlaur (The Brides of Dracula). Some had stunt doubles for their nude scenes, but were dubbed over in order to appeal to a wider male-dominated audience (many by voice-over actress Nikki van der Zyl).

Many of Hammer’s female stars walked away unhappy: Andress was replaced by Olinka Berova for the lousy Vengeance of She (1968), while Bette Davis was shooed away after starring in the fantastically creepy thriller The Nanny (1965) and the winningly deranged farce The Anniversary (1968). Other actresses walked away confident that they had the power to make or break these films: Raquel Welch left Hammer on a high note after headlining the cavewoman-and-dinosaur blockbuster One Million Years B.C., while Joan Fontaine used her influence to force Hammer’s board of directors to hire director Cyril Frankel (who made the devastatingly unnerving pedophile thriller Never Takes Sweets From a Stranger) to helm her in The Witches, her last feature film.

Odds and Ends: Cavewomen, Pirates, Psychos, and Soldiers
Monster movies may have been Hammer’s biggest and most consistent money-makers, but the company often tried to glom onto existing trends. They made a handful of fun swashbucklers, like Captain Clegg (1962) and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), and a couple of worthwhile entries in the ignoble canon of Historic and Barely Clothed Women films, including One Million Years B.C. (1966) and The Viking Queen (1967). Hammer also made a pair of stand-out WWII war-crime dramas: the effectively shocking (and, at the time, rather profitable) The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and its relatively classy (and BAFTA-nominated!) follow-up, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959). But Hammer always did well with thrillers, particularly the subgenre of, in James Carreras’s words, “mini-Hitchcocks” that Hearn has aptly described as “suspense thrillers, which often cast a confused and vulnerable heroine as the victim of a Machiavellian scheme.”

The best of this subgenre includes the excellent, Sangster-scripted Taste of Fear (1961) as well as the loopy, locked-room mystery The Snorkel (1958) and the tense Oliver Reed vehicle Paranoiac (1963). Be sure to check out the excellent black magic/devil worship frightfest The Devil Rides Out (1968) and the equally great heist caper Cash on Demand (1961), which features a gripping performance from Cushing as a ruthless bureaucrat who is held hostage during a bank robbery.

Before the Collapse: Greatness at the End of an Era
Many critics and fans — including Marcus Hearn author, of The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films — admit that the general quality of Hammer’s post-’60s output was generally inferior from 1970 onward. But Hearn is at least fair-minded enough to give credit where it’s due — and sometimes where it’s not (he’s somewhat fond of The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the underwhelming, disreputable final entry in the Lee-starring Dracula films). Even some of Michael Carreras’s more outlandish attempts at keeping the studio’s lights on — including the unnerving Rosemary’s Baby/satanic panic riff To the Devil a Daughter (1976) and the wonky but fun martial arts/horror hybrid The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) — are worth a look. Adventurous viewers may want to seek out Hammer’s more-hit-than-miss TV horror anthology, Hammer House of Horror (1980), particularly “Visitor from the Grave,” “The House That Bled to Death,” and “Rude Awakening.”

After the Fall: Hammer Horror in the 21st Century
In 2007, Dutch producer John de Mol purchased the rights to Hammer’s titles and name. Executives Simon Oakes and Marc Schipper now manage the studio, and have since released a handful of Gothic chillers of varying quality. The surprisingly excellent vampire remake Let Me In (2010) stands out as the best of this bunch, but Irish pagans–and–birth-control-themed horror film Wake Wood (2011) and WWI ghost story Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2015) are both fitfully brilliant. Here’s to many more years of lurid Hammer glory.

Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy: A Hammer Horror Primer