Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How To Get HAMMERed: A Reevaluation of Hammer Horror

When fans talk about movies on the internet, one of the most painfully overused words is "overrated." It's thrown around time and time again, usually when someone somewhere has just watched some widely recognized classic of a movie and didn't get any kicks from it. The fault, he decides, must lie in the movie, not in himself, so he logs on to the internet, punches some buttons and gives birth to the latest overuse of "overrated" to describe his conclusion about that mediocre-to-lousy movie everyone inexplicably seems to love.

I offer this both as prologue and as a bit of a warning; what I've just described is what I'm about to do. It's not exactly the same, of course. Mine isn't a momentary whim. I've thought on the subject I'm about to tackle for some years. I've even written about it for years in various forums. I've had entire squadrons of angry fanboys try to decapitate me for my thoughts on the matter. I've had more learned commentators intemperately dispute with me on the subject. And sometimes--just sometimes--people agree with me too. But not as often.

Let me put my cards on the table.

The films of Britain's Hammer studios are some of the most beloved horror picture shows of their day, the movies that gave birth to the careers of icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, smashing successes at the box office, scandalized for their sex and violence and hailed for pushing the boundaries on both, credited with singlehandedly giving birth to "the modern horror film" and with the rebirth of gothic horror. That's the legend of Hammer.

The analysis I'd offer is a little different. As entertaining as a lot of the Hammer films undeniably are, the studio was a factory. In an era of wild experimentation in cinema, the stiff Tories running Hammer strove to impose--largely successfully--an unchallenging uniformity on their product. Even their staunchest defenders would have to concede their horror films were, for the most part, basically formulaic programmers, the filmmakers behind them competent jobbers without much to say. While it's certainly true their success helped bring about that new wave of horror films, the Hammer pictures were a part of that wave, not the leaders of it, and quality-wise, they were often put to shame by the films that emerged from around the world at the same time. Hammer gets a lot of credit for pushing the boundaries of sex and violence in horror cinema and while their content certainly resulted in a storm of controversy at the time (mostly from elderly British critics who, one suspect, were being paid by the harrumph), it really wasn't particularly bold and, for the most part, seemed the stuff of tame children's fare within only a few short years. Others were pushing those same boundaries much harder in those years.

Hammer films are, in a word, overrated.

That isn't to say, as some have seemed determined to have it say, that Hammer is bad. In this Bushite age of starkly drawn, irreconcilable and perpetually combative dualities, I've often been dismissed as a "hater" when I've offered this line. That's not the case at all. The Hammer gang, which doesn't need me to vouch for this, turned out a lot of good and even excellent horror films. The best of it has always had a place in my heart. I recently had another look at their version of THE MUMMY--a great piece of work. Their Nigel Kneale adaptations--THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN and the Quatermass flicks--are excellent. I really like the first two Draculas, several of the Frankensteins, CAPTAIN KRONOS, COUNTESS DRACULA, their adaptation of DR. SYN, THE GORGON (which is very underappreciated), the first Carmilla movie--lots of good stuff over those years. I'm a fan of a lot of it, a big fan of some of it and nothing I write here should be interpreted as the words of a "hater" or of someone who fails to appreciate and even adore the studio's very real accomplishments. When I assert Hammer horror is "overrated," I'm mostly aiming at its reputation for innovation, which goes beyond what it deserves, and attempting to redress, to some extent, the habit of some of its enthusiasts of sweeping under the rug its shortcomings.

The state of horror cinema when Hammer first entered the field was the first block on which the Hammer legend was built. Sci-fi horrors were the order of the day in the 1950s--saucer pictures, big bug movies, commies-from-space pictures--and when Hammer came along, what very few straight horror films still appeared were mostly terrible and had been for years, pretty much since Lewton's RKO unit had closed up shop.[1] Gothic horror in particular had died a cruel death with a Lou Costello whimper in the '40s. Hammer films were great indeed compared to most of what had been passing for horror for years but contrary to the legend, Hammer didn't lead the pack when, in the late '50s, the world had ripened for a return to the good stuff. The modern horror film actually began in France with LES DIABOLIQUES in 1955,[2] while the modern gothic horror began in Italy, where Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava offered up I VAMPIRI in 1956. When, in the magic year of 1957, Hammer lept into the horror field with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, horror was already popping up all over the world. In the U.S., Roger Corman made THE UNDEAD, a cheapie and no classic but one that introduced many of the elements he would, within a few years, expand upon in his superior cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations.[3] Also produced at the same time as CURSE were Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (Sweden), Fernando Mendez's EL VAMPIRO (Mexico) and Jacques Tourneur's NIGHT OF THE DEMON (UK). All three of these films were vastly superior to Hammer's CURSE.[4] They were, in fact, superior to just about everything Hammer would ever produce in the horror field.[5]

What CURSE had that the others in the Class of '57 lacked was color.[6] The flesh-tones were warm, the blood was red, and no one had seen anything like it. The use of color in gothic horror was, indeed, a Hammer innovation,[7] and no doubt part of the reason those crotchety English critics were so shocked--shocked!--by the level of gore in the film. For those who haven't seen it, there's virtually no gore in CURSE but what little was present was indeed red and that seemed to inspire those critics to portray the film as a nauseating bloodbath (Feeling cheeky, the Hammer boys replied by opening their next horror production, DRACULA, with a shot of some blood splattering on a tomb).

What Hammer's use of color lacked was any real artistic initiative. CURSE and the Hammer horrors that followed offered sumptuous, beautifully rendered color photography but their use of color remained strictly matter-of-fact. Decorative and nothing more. While Hammer is so often praised for its use of color, it in fact fell to Hammer's contemporary rivals to show the world how it's really done. Roger Corman, in his Poe cycle followed almost immediately (and even more impressively) by Mario Bava left the merely decorative far behind, offering up wild, innovative experiments in the expressive use of color. Hammer never matched it. Hammer never even tried.

Hammer's conservatism with color was matched by its conservatism in its choice of stories. Hammer films were always set in a conservative, rigidly ordered moral universe, which arguably murdered any effort at horror right out of the gate. With a few notable exceptions, they offered simple good-vs.-evil tales. As horror buff "Squonkamatic" put it (in one of the message board exchanges I've had on the subject):

"Their stories tend to be about the status quo being upset and a quest to settle things down again. Even if the particular evil isn't destroyed or the story wrapped up into a neat bundle, there is always an emphasis on order being restored in the face of chaos. The monster himself isn't so much the antagonist as is the disruption of normal life and the moral or ethical disharmony that his/her influence inflicts on the community."[8]

While genre films were taking storytelling in different and interesting directions,[9] Hammer held to this conservatism throughout its time in the horror business.[10]

Hammer was routinely pelted with criticism in its native Great Britain for its violent and sexy movies and that hail of rotten tomatoes has been converted, over the years, into a shower of praise for pushing the boundaries of acceptable content. Lost in the midst of both the decaying vegetation and the congratulatory wreaths is the fact that Hammer's use of sex and violence was actually extraordinarily mild. Mild in and of itself, mild in comparison to their contemporaries and becoming cartoonishly mild in comparison as time went on. British censorship was (and is) the most conservative in the Western world; coming into conflict with it required very little. The insanely stodgy critics and censors of the House of Horror's heyday revealed, through their reviling of Hammer's product, everything about themselves and little about the films. Hammer's years of horror coincided with Jesus Franco's earliest work,[11] PEEPING TOM, Herschell Gordon Lewis' gore-packed extravaganzas, THE WHIP & THE BODY, BLOOD & BLACK LACE, and the rest of Bava's prime, ONIBABA, REPULSION, MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, PSYCHO, etc. By the end of the '60s, Hammer had been left entirely in the dust when it came to blood and bumpin'-uglies-related business. We were getting items like THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, Jean Rollin's early films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the Blind Dead, MOJU, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, Dario Argento, pinku stuff from Japan, Paul Naschy's movies and so on, movies that genuinely pushed boundaries like mad and like they were mad.

Particularly odd are the hysterical howls of their early detractors regarding all that smutty sex stuff with which Hammer supposedly stuffed their productions. In the real world, Hammer always shied away from full-bodied eroticism. They had to--the British censors would drag out the scissors if they offered more than the vaguest suggestion. Their films didn't even feature nudity until 1970.[12] Before that, the most you'd ever get from them was a little upper-jubbly cleavage from some busty (but fully clothed) barmaid, a suggestive dance or a curvy vampire lass whose actions we're to regard as "sensual" because we're meant to substitute, in our minds, her sucking of her victims' blood for suction of a more wholesome variety.[13] To sample how truly backwards was Hammer when it came to more involved matters relating to the beast with two (or more) backs, look at the snickering, embarrassed, English-schoolboy-being-naughty approach to eroticism in the first two Karnstein films, especially the second one,[14] and compare it to the way the same element is approached by Franco, Harry Kumel, Jean Rollin in their roughly contemporaneous films.

For that matter, look at how just about everything was being handled by Hammer vs. everyone else, particularly from the mid-60s onward. It was a time of remarkable innovation. As genre writer Tim Lucas put it, the '60s was "second only to the '20s in terms of its serious contribution to the history of imaginative moviemaking."[15] We're getting KWAIDAN, TARGETS, Jose Mojica Marins' Coffin Joe, and all of the other films about which I've just been rattling on, and Hammer is cranking out DRACULA, PART 48 and FRANKENSTEIN, PART 34.

Hammer was a film factory and like most factories, those who ran it didn't see much merit in the idea that strength could come from diversity. On the other hand, the Hollywood axiom "nothing succeeds like success" had a lot of very dear friends among the management there. When the studio started making horror movies, it had a big hit, then another then fell into its cycle of formulaic programmers almost immediately. Its films weren't made by artists with a burning desire to tell a story; they were made by clock-punching jobbers,[16] skilled craftsmen working from a house style that was intended to obliterate as many signs of individuality as possible and that mostly succeeded. That's why, when one isolates the films of any particular individual director among the long-time Hammer hands, there are no identifiably consistent themes,[17] bold or unusual points of view or even particularly innovative technical work that marks those films as the product of that individual. The house style shows some (mostly minor) variation over time but with few exceptions, Hammer horrors basically look the same, regardless of the director, whose job was little more than to show up, say "action" and say "cut." If they had a good story and script--and they were always assigned this; they never came up with the idea or developed it themselves--and the actors and crew were doing well, the picture worked. If there was a shortcoming anywhere in this chain, it didn't. Hammer was blessed with a large number of competent craftsmen who could make pretty things for an audience to look at and could crank out a fine entertainment from time to time.

The blessing comes with a caveat though; they cranked out a far larger number of mediocre-to-poor entertainments. I've always found a certain blandness factor in Hammer's horror films, even among the better ones. It isn't exactly true that, with Hammer, "if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all," but it often feels a lot like that. That's part of the downside of too unyielding an effort to impose uniformity--it makes your best picture feel a whole lot like your worst one. And while great horror can inspire outright awe, very few of the Hammer horrors do (which isn't an insignificant point, particularly given the volume of horror Hammer produced). My own feelings about Hammer are, as everything I've written here makes plain, mixed but one thing on which I'm not divided is that the common sentiment regarding the high quality of their films, the boldness of them and the place they earn Hammer in cinematic history is overblown.[18] In this sense, they are overrated.

Make of that what you will.

--j.

---

[1] While ailing in the cinema, however, horror had flourished in American comics between 1950 and '54, led by William Gaines' gang of groovy ghouls at EC Comics. At mid-decade, the insanity of the McCarthy era turned its guns on horror books and TALES FROM THE CRYPT and all the rest were put out of business but the Cryptkeeper had the last laugh; the influence of the EC horror comics on modern horror cinema is immeasurable and, to bring things back to the central theme of this article, puts the influence of Hammer to shame.

[2] LES DIABOLIQUES was a huge box-office success. William Castle, upon seeing it, was inspired to leave his regular job at Columbia and start work on what would eventually become MACABRE, the first of his many entries into the horror field. Author Robert Bloch named LES DIABOLIQUES his "favorite horror film of all time," and "the epitome of what the horror film should be." He was inspired by it to write PSYCHO, which was, a few years later, turned into the seminal horror film by Alfred Hitchcock.

[3] '57 was also the year Screen Gems put together, for television airing in the U.S., a package of more than 50 classic Universal horrors from the '30s and '40s under the banner "Shock Theater." The package was wildly successful, and set off a renaissance of interest in the classic horrors. Their popularity led Forrest J. Ackerman--Uncle Forry--to launch his horror fanzine "Famous Monsters of Filmland" in 1958, and it nurtured a few generations of genre filmmakers and writers.

[4] That isn't to say CURSE was a bad movie. Though one of Hammer's lesser films, it still had, among other things, a cracking good villain. The character of Frankenstein is said to have appeared in more than 200 movies over the years but for my money, Peter Cushing's is easily the definitive portrayal.

[5] Some would disagree, of course. Fortunately for them, they face no legal sanction for being completely wrong.

[6] And what it made was money--lots of it. The big bucks Hammer had rolling in from their initial productions added rocket-fuel to the production of this new breed of horror film.

[7] There is a perpetual argument among horror aficionados about whether gothic horrors even should be shot in color. I confess my sympathies lean more toward those who argue black-and-white is the proper medium for the sub-genre but I'm no ideologue on the point. There have been far too many great gothics well lensed in color to dismiss it as a palette. Still, gothic horror is about generating a certain atmosphere and a lot of the visual language that most effectively spoke to this seemed to get lost in the translation to color.

[8] That may be the first time in history someone known only as "Squonkamatic" was quoted in a text of this sort, and this may be the first footnote to cite such a source, too. I don't care. I'm feeling lazy. He said it as well as I could have--why rewrite it?

[9] Roger Corman, for example, constructed his Poe films around the idea that the "reality" they present is a projection of the disturbed minds at the center of the stories. Polanski's REPULSION (1965) visualized the delusional fantasies of its central character, a mentally disturbed woman.

[10] Hammer also remained committed to straightforward linear narratives right to the end, though the genre began generating interesting challenges to those narratives by the end of the '60s, like Jesus Franco's SUCCUBUS and Jean Rollin's early work. If this is judged a sin at all, it's a very minor one, but it does help make the case for Hammer's lack of any real innovative spirit.

[11] Franco's first horror, GRITOS EN LA NOCHE (1962), is a vicious little film, with onscreen surgery on bleeding human beings (a carryover from 1959's seminal EYES WITHOUT A FACE) and sporting, as a lead, a doctor who seems to have had much of his conscience surgically removed. The torture sequence in THE SADISTIC BARON VON KLAUS (Franco's second horror outing) puts to shame anything ever shot by Hammer. A lot of the sex and violence in films of this vintage look quaint now--that KLAUS sequence is still jaw-dropping in its rawness and viciousness today. And both of those flicks feature all kinds of wild music, crazy camerawork, improvisation. They are innovative features, reaching for something new and different, not the dull, practically invisible house style adopted by Hammer for most of its time in the chiller business. O.K., so this was really just an excuse to throw in a footnote about Jesus Franco movies. Sue me. I like the guy.

[12] In THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, a most excellent (if flawed) flick, that appeared nearly a decade after Hammer's contemporaries had began using nudity.

[13] Then, later, we're meant to cheer with some sexless Puritan drives a stake through her, ridding the world of suction forever in the name of the Lord. Hallelujah!

[14] These were Hammer's first attempts at a plunge into lush eroticism. THE VAMPIRE LOVERS gets the striking Ingrid Pitt naked on camera--a good start, to be sure--but when, in the scene in question, a pair of fully grown women suddenly act like silly girls playing a game of tag, one suspects the jobbers behind the camera didn't quite understand the phrase "lush eroticism" (as one commentator has said, one expects them to break out into a pillow-fight at any moment). As for the follow-up, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, well, let me hear you sing it... "Straaange love..."

[15] "The 1960s" from Fangoria #100

[16] I've gotten some static over that and similar phrases when I've discussed Hammer in various venues. It's said to be demeaning, which isn't the intention at all. As a matter of personal bias, if that's the right word, I do place artists at a higher level than employees when it comes to making art. Being a jobber can imply a lack of passion for the work. Obviously, an indie filmmaker who puts his all and usually every penny he owns, and a lot of pennies he has to beg, borrow, and steal from friends and relatives is going to put all of his heart and soul into a project. It's going to consume all of his time and money, maybe for years. It requires dedication, commitment, a sort of obsession. I know--I've been there for a few years myself. A jobber is someone who punches a clock every day, who is usually going to look upon his work the same way most of us look upon our work. It's just a job. This isn't always the case, of course, but my bias in that regard is, as I see it, reasonable. It's the same reason football fans prefer college ball to the pros. And none of this is to suggest the jobbers can't sometimes trump the artists. Warner Brothers, as a factory operation, produced CASABLANCA, for example, a film without which no list of the greatest movies can be complete. It's telling, however, that literally no one who worked on that movie had any idea how good it really was. They just cranked it out, moved on to the next one, and expressed disbelief in later years that it turned out so well. The difference between the artist and the jobber: for the latter, filmmaking a job; for the former, it's a life.

[17] Hammer's films had thematic consistencies, not the films of the individual directors.

[18] And no, Hammer fanatics, that's definitely not the product of a "divided mind."

1 comment:

  1. I arrived at this article by searching for Hammer horror overrated in Google. It was my recent viewing of Dracula, aka Horror of Dracula, that inspired my search. It's perfectly fine, but underwhelming in tone and scale compared to the 1931 film and positively small compared to the adventure in the novel, yet it has mobs of IMDb fanboys rating it up there with the best films of all time.

    ANYWAY, thanks for writing this article and putting the Hammer horrors into perspective, and for mentioning some other films for me to check out.

    ReplyDelete