Friday, October 28, 2011

HORROR HARVEST: Part Six: A lurid palette and ample bosoms – the Hammer horror story

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Christopher Lee as Count Dracula -- a very different interpretation.
Oddly enough, what is thought of now as one of the primary veins of classic film horror was widely despised as graphic and obscene when it first emerged.

Britain’s Hammer Film Productions was originally one of many low-budget domestic movie companies. It struck gold in 1955 when it adapted a highly successful BBC television series with a scientist hero, Dr. Bernard Quatermass. British censors found the shooting script “outrageous,” but audiences didn’t seem to mind the inclusion of graphic details of invading aliens and mutated human beings one little bit.
Richard Wordsworth as the mutated astronaut in "The Quatermass Xperiment."
 Emboldened, the Hammer team decided to resuscitate the Frankenstein franchise, diverging far enough from the Universal Studios approach so that lawsuits would not be filed. Furthermore, they intended to shoot it in color and to make maximum use of a rich and pronounced color palette, which intensified the viewing experience to a remarkable degree. (Unfortunately, they used Eastmancolour stock, which is highly unstable and prone to fading – it is very difficult to find well-preserved copies of these 1950s Hammer efforts.)

Four key figures set the tone for Hammer horror – director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, cinematographer Jack Asher and production designer Bernard Robinson. Asher and Robinson are the particular unsung heroes – faced with skeletal budgets and the limited confines of what became the Bray Studio, a former country house on the Thames west of London. The two men created a lavish look for most of the films in the series.

NOTE: My dear friend, Hollywood composer and orchestrator Jon Kull, reminds me that the contributions of Hammer house composer James Bernard are not to be neglected. His distinctive percussive emphases, horn runs, and clashing string harmonies did much to carry home the sweeping, magisterial threats peddled by Fisher's sequences. Here's an excerpt a devoted fan has concocted:



The wild success of “The Curse of Frankenstein” caused Hammer to forge an alliance with Universal, and brought investors to the business office. Soon most of the Universal and other classic horror icons – Dracula, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, and werewolves -- joined other fanciful creations on screen. In livid color, graphically violent and gory situations, they ruled the fright box office for nearly 15 years.

Another aspect of Hammer was its emphasis on revealing the female body, and exploring the sexual subtext (later on, there was nothing sub about it) implicit in the horror narratives. Hammer heroines were often blonde and always bosomy, showing off their balconies in diaphanous, low-cut gowns and peignoirs. The tall and suave Christopher Lee played Dracula as a hypnotic seducer who seemed to unleash his female victims’ carnality as he sucked their blood.
Ingrid Pitt, the ultimate Hammer (anti)heroine.
 Eventually, sex moved into the foreground. “The Vampire Lovers” featured Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla, who decided preferred to dominate innocent young women, mentally and sexually. The so-called Karnstein trilogy continued with “Lust for a Vampire” and “Twin of Evil,” and Pitt went on to star as Countess Dracula, bathing in the blood of her victims to maintain eternal youth.

Interesting offshoots such as “Captain Cronos” and “Vampire Circus” attempted to breathe new life into the cycle, but by the early 1970s, the rest of the film industry had caught up with and surpassed Hammer’s cinematic transgressions. The string was played out, and variations had been rung on the Hammer archetypes until there was no life left in them at all.

And of course, the Hammer repertory company of actors was superb. Actresses such as Pitt, Barbara Shelley, Veronica Carlson and Kate O’Mara are unmistakable as screaming victims and/or as vampiric acolytes. Actors like Michael Ripper, Ralph Bates, Andre Morrell, and Andrew Keir were standouts as well. (Good old Oliver Reed’s first starring role was in “The Curse of the Werewolf.”)
 The three central Hammer actors were Michael Gough, Christopher Lee and Pete Cushing. Gough would later best known as Alfred the Butler in the first cycle of Batman films, but his waspish menace was exhilarating to behold. 
Michael Gough in "The Horror of Dracula."
Lee was not just the definitive Dracula for many; he could play a variety of characters from sober heroes to raging maniacs.
Christopher Lee as a good guy in "The Devil Rides Out"
. . . and as "Rasputin the Mad Monk."
Cushing ranks for me with Karloff and Price as the epitome of horror star. Whether playing a Frankenstein or a van Helsing, he had an absolute, no-nonsense conviction about his character that carried him through the most implausible scenarios. Additionally, he was a consistent underplayer. Cushing’s restraint made his performances so subtle and modulated that, if his career had been in a more “legitimate” strain of film, he would be far more widely known and honored today. He is endlessly fascinating to watch.
Peter Cushing in his signature role -- Doctor Frankenstein in "The Curse of Frankenstein."

Hammer horror still works. Despite its absurdities and lapses into bad taste, Hammer’s literate and high-toned approach gave it a bit of class and distinction, a shuddery thrill associated with mist, velvet, lace and splashes of vivid red.


The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown)
Val Guest
1955
X the Unknown
Leslie Norman
1956


The Curse of Frankenstein
Terence Fisher
1957

Quatermass 2
Val Guest
1957


Horror of Dracula
Terence Fisher
1958

The Revenge of Frankenstein
Terence Fisher
1958


The Mummy
Terence Fisher
1959

The Brides of Dracula
Terence Fisher
1960

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll
Terence Fisher
1960

The Curse of the Werewolf
Terence Fisher
1961

The Shadow of the Cat
John Gilling
1961

The Phantom of the Opera
Terence Fisher
1962

The Kiss of the Vampire
Don Sharp
1963

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Michael Carreras
1964


The Evil of Frankenstein
Freddie Francis
1964

The Gorgon
Terence Fisher
1964

Nightmare
Freddie Francis
1965

Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Terence Fisher
1966

The Plague of the Zombies
John Gilling
1966

The Reptile
John Gilling
1966

Frankenstein Created Woman
Terence Fisher
1967

The Mummy’s Shroud
John Gilling
1967


Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth)
Roy Ward Baker
1967

The Devil Rides Out
Terence Fisher
1968

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
Freddie Francis
1968

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Terence Fisher
1969

Taste the Blood of Dracula
Peter Sasdy
1970

The Horror of Frankenstein
Jimmy Sangster
1970

Scars of Dracula
Roy Ward Baker
1970


The Vampire Lovers
Roy Ward Baker
1970
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb
Seth Holt
1971

Countess Dracula
Peter Sasdy
1971

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde
Roy Ward Baker
1971

Hands of the Ripper
Pete Sasdy
1971

Lust for a Vampire
Jimmy Sangster
1971

Twins of Evil
John Hough
1971

Demons of the Mind
Peter Sykes
1972

Dracula AD 1972
Alan Gibson
1972


Vampire Circus
Robert Young
1972

The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Alan Gibson
1973

Captain Cronos – Vampire Hunter
Brian Clemens
1974

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell
Terence Fisher
1974


The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
Roy Ward Baker, Cheng Cheh
1974

To the Devil … a Daughter
Peter Sykes
1974

NEXT UP: The Corman Poes, and the peerless Vincent Price