If there’s one thing that Halloween is incomplete without, it’s a good rip-roaring monsterfest. Today’s modern horror films tend to lean more towards the psychological and the symbolic and at worst lean towards the bare minimum of shakey-cam slashing, with very little in the way of iconism. They typically leave out the colour, the scantily-clad blondes and the bloodthirsty monsters from Hell that no October should be without. Remember when Halloween was about ghosts, goblins and ghoulish creeps? Ladies and gentlemen of my excessively uncultured era, I give you Hammer Horror, that most brilliant bastion of B-movies.
In the 1950s, the British production company Hammer gained success following their acquisition of the rights to a number of classic Universal Studios horror franchises, such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy. Much like today’s reboot/remake/revamp-crazy cinema, not much differed in the 1950s, as the company cranked out reversions of established monsters who hadn’t thrilled audiences in a while. Their best effort was simply titled “Dracula” (although to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi film of the same name, it was renamed “Horror of Dracula” in the United States) starring the seemingly immortal, possible-actual-vampire Christopher Lee as the devilish Count. Whereas Lugosi was more of a suave, charming, closet-killer, there was almost a total lack of humanity in Christopher Lee’s Dracula, who rarely spoke and was so utterly frightening he seemed as though he really was a demonic agent of Satan. This obviously struck a chord with audiences and Lee was brought back for a smattering of sequels (sound familiar?) with fluctuating degrees of success both financial and critical. Still though, the creepiness in Lee’s performance prevailed, even manage to save camp-fests like “Dracula 1972 A.D.” in which the Prince of Darkness is resurrected in (you guessed it) the post-Free Love hangover that was the early 1970s. Far out.
The other most prominent series helmed by Hammer was the Frankenstein series, which of course had a tough act to follow considering how utterly iconic the Universal Studios Boris Karloff version of the tragic monster was and is. Rather than retread the same ground, Hammer opted to shift the focus from the monster over to the actual Doctor himself, Baron Victor Frankenstein (as played by B-movie legend Peter Cushing) and his monstrously unethical experiments. Cushing portrayed a doctor who would do anything and hurt anyone to achieve his ultimate goal of unlocking the secrets of immortality, creating weaving a darker tapestry of evil and madness than what was seen in the original Universal Studios series (which owed all of its fright-value to its monster, which was more of a tragic character).
The legacy of Hammer Horror is best evidenced in the Star Wars films, which are loaded with references and influences (some of the dialogue is very similar and both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee have prominent roles as similar characters). Bizarrely, it’s difficult to get all of the films on one great big boxset, as they’re handled by different distributors with different sets of rights. If you can get your hands on any of them however, they’re well worth a watch.
Rob Ó Conchúir