Hammer Prime: The Best of Bray Horror

The history of Hammer Studios is fascinating but convoluted; a production company in the 1930s, then a distributor, then a production company again that subsisted on a series of low-budget comedy, drama, and science-fiction pictures partially financed by U.S. producer Robert L. Lippert, who also supplied second-tier American stars like Brian Donlevy and Cesar Romero in return for American distribution rights. Hammer got UK rights to Lippert films, and the sci-fi offerings, including Rocketship XM, did notably well, leading Hammer to produce their own low-budget sci-fi, including Spaceways, The Four Sided Triangle, and -- most notably of all, because it put the studio on the map -- The Quartermass Xperiment (released in the U.S as The Creeping Unknown). Hammer signed a long-term lease on a dilapidated manor home, named it Bray Studios after the nearest village, and set about turning it into a film studio.

By 1956, with the Lippert deal expired, Hammer was seeking American financiers. Two young Yanks, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, were looking to follow up their terrible but successful initial production, Rock, Rock, Rock!, with a remake of Frankenstein, and had written a script they were shopping around. James Carreras, head of Hammer, thought the idea interesting and assigned Tony Hinds as producer; he thought it was going to be another inexpensive B&W feature, filmed quickly and no trouble.

He hated the script, though, and the Hammer powers were also worried that it followed the Universal film series too closely and invited a lawsuit. They paid off Subotsky & Rosenberg for ,000 cash and 15% of the profits and had Jimmy Sangster write his own script, The Curse of Frankenstein. British censors (quoted from Wayne Kinsey's book on Hammer) called it ' fact, really evil...repulsive...gratuitous examples of sadism and lust, ludicrously written...loathsome...'

That same month, Peter Cushing read in the trades that Hammer was remaking Frankenstein, and - being a great admirer of the James Whale original - volunteered himself to play the scientist. Hammer had been entertaining the idea of an American for the role, but decided the film's title would sell itself in the U.S., and signed Cushing. A search for a tall actor to play the Monster resulted in Christopher Lee's addition to the cast. Filming began on November 19, although the censor was fighting the script, no makeup had been decided upon for the Monster, and Universal was threatening a lawsuit for Hammer's use of the name Frankenstein in a motion picture. Somehow, they made it through the problems and the first Technicolor Frankenstein picture was a worldwide smash, with just enough horror and gore to make up for a rather disappointing Monster. Hammer immediately announced plans for a sequel -- but first, a new version of Dracula.

Horror of Dracula (as it was called in the U.S.) is one of the screen's most iconic horror films, Hammer's best-known and best-loved motion picture, and maybe the finest screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel during the sound era, certainly the best I've seen.

Jonathan Harker heads to the Carpathian Mountains to work as the new librarian for Count Dracula (Lee), but he's actually there to kill the guy: Dracula is, it seems a vampire. Harker runs into a bosomy young woman, though, and kills her first (she has fangs as well as her other obvious physical attributes, you see) which annoys Dracula. He kills Harker and heads to his home to take his fiance in revenge. What a hot head, this Dracula. Fearless vampire killer Van Helsing (Cushing) is on his trail, though.

The censor battled the studio a lot on this one; Hammer argued that (a) a Technicolor vampire film HAD to have all that blood in it (the censor at one point actually wondered why vampires are sloppier when eating than normal people) and that people expect when they go to a horror film that they're going to see actual horror. The censor hated the fact that Dracula seems to seduce his victims, and went berserk over the ending, with Dracula turning to dust before our eyes. In the end, Hammer argued successfully that the film had already been scored, and it would be prohibitively costly to re-edit the picture any further. The censors, seething, gave in but would come down VERY hard on future Hammer productions.

Horror of Dracula staged its world premiere on May 5, 1958 in Milwaukee (!) and was another monstrous hit; the horrors would fly fast and furious after this, beginning with The Revenge of Frankenstein. Unlike Colin Clive's misguided Dr. Frankenstein, Cushing played the Doctor as a true villain, with interchangeable (and sometimes absent) Monsters in each film. In this one, he sets up his practice as the head of a hospital for the poor, so he can help himself to a nice smorgasbord of body parts (amputating the arm of a pickpocket, for example, because he admires the guy's light fingers) for his next creation.

I like Cushing, but his Frankenstein is so evil and rotten it's hard to like him in these movies. This was produced probably ten minutes after Dracula wrapped; the same sets are used; only hastily redressed for the most part, if at all. The Revenge of Frankenstein was released in the fall of 1958. It made a lot of money, and Hammer rushed Cushing (as Holmes) and Lee (as Sir Henry) into a remake of Hound of the Baskervilles that was a misfire, despite a quite good performance by Cushing. He's far different from other roles I've seen him in, with impeccable clipped speech, just the right amount of patronizing attitude when dealing with those not as smart as him (which is everybody), and with a habit of snapping his pointing finger up when he has something important to say (which he does a lot). The fierce hound is portrayed by a Great Dane wearing a fuzzy mask. A remake of The Man on Half-Moon Street with Anton Diffring a last-minute sub for Cushing followed; Hammer's version, The Man who could Cheat Death, was no great shakes.

The big box-office returns scored by Dracula and Frankenstein hadn't escaped Universal's notice, and on August 20, 1958, Hammer and Universal-International announced a joint finance and distribution agreement that would give Hammer remake rights to Universal's storied horror film library; the first titles would be The Phantom of the Opera, The Invisible Man, and The Mummy. Only two of them got produced, and the latter would be the first.

Unlike the earlier Dracula and Frankenstein pictures, which were produced by Anthony Hinds, Michael Cerreras was given the task of bringing The Mummy (1959) back from his tomb. With its faux-Egyptian settings and atmosphere, the film looks better than any of the gothic horrors before it. Of course, Terence Fisher was back to direct; Jimmy Sangster wrote this amalgam of Universal's Im-Ho-Tep and Kharis mummy films of the '30s and '40s. Peter Cushing is John Banning, whose father and uncle desecrated the tomb of a 4000-years-dead Egyptian Princess; Yvonne Furneaux is his wife; George Pastell is the High Priest of Karnak; Eddie Byrne is the Scotland Yard Inspector who doesn't believe in living mummies; Christopher Lee is the living mummy he doesn't believe in.

Atmospheric, with a nice swampy bog and lots of character actor villagers thrown into the mix. Lee's Kharis is swift and deadly, unlike any previous film Mummy. I saw a reissue of the film as a kid, and the sequence where Kharis smashes into the asylum and kills Cushing's father was as terrifying a sight as I'd ever see in a movie. This is my favorite Hammer film, despite the plot's silliness (Cushing's British wife happens to be the exact double of a 40-centuries-old Egyptian Princess?) and the fact it's the only movie I can recall that has a flashback to its own flashback!

Next up was the long-awaited sequel Dracula II (as it was called in pre-production), which went through a lot of writers and screen treatments before a final script was ready - and Peter Cushing, back as Van Helsing, balked at it. He asked for another rewrite, and, in particular, loathed the ending.

Dracula does not appear in the Brides of Dracula; instead, his disciple, Baron Meinster, is the vampire. The first draft, however, had Van Helsing use an ancient incantation to summon Dracula, who kills Meinster. Hammer decided not to try to bring Christopher Lee back for one scene or to replace him, so that was out. Instead, Van Helsing brings down a swarm of vampire bats to kill Meinster. 'Well, I just thought it made no sense,' Cushing said, 'that Van Helsing is brandishing crucifixes and Holy Water all through the film, and then, at the climax summons the forces of evil!' The new ending, with Van Helsing and a windmill, is kind of memorable.

Despite the script problems and lack of Drac, Brides of Dracula is arguably the finest horror film Hammer ever made; it's fun, scary, and has some memorable sequences, not least of all when Van Helsing is bitten (!) and has to cauterize the wound with a branding iron. Ouch!

The censors: 'Obviously written by an insane, but very precocious schoolboy.'

Terence Fisher said Curse of the Werewolf was his favorite of his many horror films, because it was essentially a tragic love story, something you couldn't say about any of the others. I think it's one of the very best of the Hammers, too, and its history is quite fascinating.

Hammer acquired the rights to Guy Endor's novel The Werewolf of Paris, but changed the setting to Spain because they were heading there to make a film about the Spanish Inquisition and intended to save money by shooting two productions at once. (When the Inquisition film was cancelled, they ended up shooting the project at their Bray studio anyway.)

Evil Marquis Anthony Dawson tosses a beggar into his dungeon and forgets about him. The years pass, and the prisoner turns into a shaggy creature scarcely more than canine. When comely servant Yvonne Romain gets tossed into the clink for resisting her master's 'charms', she's assaulted by the dog-guy. Later, brought to the Marquis, she slaughters him with a sharp object and escapes into the woods, where she's found by a passing nobleman who takes her into his home. Nine months later, little Leon is born, but mama dies in the effort and the man raises the kid as his son, despite the little boy's taste for raw squirrels, cats, and lambs. Years later (and nearly an hour into the film), the kid has grown into Oliver Reed, and the moon grows into something that makes him hairy, scary, and not-so-merry. Can the love of sweet Catherine Feller rescue him from the curse of the werewolf?

A fine film, with a lot of good scenes, nice use of Technicolor (typical Hammer shocking-red blood) and also typically claustrophobic tiny sets, heavily reusing the standing Frankenstein and Dracula scenery to signify Spain. (The actors, all with thick British accents, call each other 'Senor' so you know it must be Spain, really.) The opening sequence goes on a bit too long, perhaps, and the werewolf doesn't really come around until the end of the picture, but the whole thing's interesting and the final scenes with the werewolf are so exciting that the film works well anyway. Check out Reed transforming in his jail cell, ripping apart his cellmate, and then smashing through the iron door! Great stuff.

In England, the British censors really gave Hammer a rough time over this one, nearly refusing to allow it to be filmed but then ordering extensive cuts to the finished product before allowing its release. They insisted the scenes with the servant girl and the Marquis be severely trimmed, and that she not murder him; that scenes of Leon as a child running wild be discarded; that close-ups of the werewolf not be shown; that the scene in which Reed murders a barmaid who's trying to seduce him be cut; and the finale, with the werewolf cornered in a church tower, be slashed to a minimum. They called the project 'obscene muck,' 'disgusting and morbid.' Hammer fought back hard, but the censors refused to back down and most of the cuts were made, accounting in part to why the film was not a great success in England. Here in America, not only was the uncut version shown, but it was offered at kiddie matinees in the summer of '61! The complete, uncut Curse of the Werewolf didn't debut in England until 1994!

The censor battles took their toll, and their future offerings, including The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, and Evil of Frankenstein (1964) had their moments but suffered in comparison to the best of Hammer's previous output. The Mummy has just been released by Warner Bros. on a beautiful Blu-ray, along with later installments of the Frankenstein and Dracula series; hopefully, the other prime Hammers will follow.

Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at