Decades after its apparent demise, a titan of horror film history is back from the grave. Maestro, a little flashback music, please…
At the end of the 1950s, British studio Hammer Film Productions began a long reign of terror with three iconic films – The Curse Of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Dracula (known in the United States as Horror Of Dracula). All three films co-star Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and over the next two decades, Hammer churned out dozens of films in the same vein (ha!). The best ones featured one or both of these two actors, who became notorious as, respectively, Doctor Van Helsing and Count Dracula. They battled their way through many Dracula sequels, from the foothills of 19th century Transylvania to modern-day (in 1972, anyway) London.
Hammer specialized in the weird, the horrific, and the suspenseful. Some of the pictures were garish, some ludicrous, some downright exploitative, but most were eye-catching, sexy and fun. Directors such as Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis had the means for lavish production design at their disposal, and boy, did they go for it! In the Dracula films especially, a mix of provincial cottages, London streets, and deep dark woods make for dynamic and immersive stories, even though the basic “Dracula rises, feeds, is destroyed, will rise again” plot varies little from picture to picture. There are also quality supporting players and buxom babes aplenty. It’s not as commonly understood nowadays that getting scared by a movie should be fun, not merely upsetting. The most substantial parallel to the Hammer horror machine was the contemporary work of American International Pictures, whose champion of choice was Vincent Price. Most noteworthy are the two Dr. Phibes movies, and Roger Corman’s series of freewheeling (but mostly fantastic) Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.
In the late 1970s, the Hammer fire quite understandably burned out. In the absence of greater innovation it was bound to happen. Christopher Lee was taking a much-needed break from vampires around this time. He spent a lot of the 1980s and 90s in Hollywood, trying his hand at action, comedy, conventional drama – evidently anything without a cape and fangs. In addition, Lee’s onscreen nemesis and real-life pal Peter Cushing was appearing less and less in films, following the death of his beloved wife. His own health was also in decline, and he would die in 1994. The Hammer studio ceased making feature films for many years. In the 1980s, they briefly produced a couple of anthology shows, the first a horror series and the second devoted to suspense and mystery. But the Hammer that had been lay mostly silent.
Hammer is returning to active production in a big way this year. To begin with, the studio is producing the upcoming Let Me In, a remake of the superb Swedish vampire story Let The Right One In (2008). The film features little Chloë Moretz, fresh off the Kick-Ass express and likely to pack seats as a doe-eyed vampiress. There was no need to remake this film, especially so soon, but hopefully it will retain some of the original’s charm and mystery.
The Hammer studio has a number of other new flicks on the way, but I shall limit myself to the most exciting news. Christopher Lee, now a late octogenarian but still a commanding tower of a man, is back on board for at least one picture. The Resident, promised for release later this year, is a taut-looking suspense thriller about the perils of moving into a new apartment where things may not be all they seem. A leaked trailer appeared on Youtube recently, but has since been yanked by distributor Exclusive Media. I did manage to see it, and with a little poking around you might be able to find it on some back-alley blog. Hopefully Exclusive will soon re-publish it officially, provided they keep the movie on track for a 2010 release.
Oh, and I must apologize. That’s Sir Christopher Lee now.
In this largely disappointing year for motion pictures, it is beginning to seem like the only exciting changes are coming to the Western horror film. Hammer is not the only runner in that race. With Guillermo del Toro writing his own ticket in Hollywood and John Carpenter trying his damnedest to rise again, the next five years or so will bring a lot of hair-raising fun if all goes well.
If. All. Goes. Well.
A little change would be nicely timed, before the big brains behind the whole Saw fiasco decide they’re not really finished. Hopefully, the benefits of an overdue and extended hiatus will breathe new life into the good name of Hammer.
The Hammer Films website features more information about this upcoming film and others. In place of a trailer for The Resident, you may enjoy an interview with Mr. Lee about returning to work with his old studio.
Also, the Famous Monsters of Filmland site features a recent series of articles on the studio’s other projects in the works.