Simon Moore selects his Five Essential Hammer Horrors…
There was a time when horror cinema wasn’t about jump shocks and buckets of red paint. When ‘horrifying’ an audience meant casting a deep, impending sense of dread over them; a feeling certain to stay with them long after the theatre lights came up and they left to go home.
In the 1950s and 60s, Hammer Film Productions created some of the most adventurous, shocking, atmospheric and, of course, horrifying films ever seen. The ‘70s saw more visceral and realistic horror like The Shining and The Exorcist, but nobody since the late ‘60s has come close to Hammer’s glorious embrace of the gothic.
These films are about a heightened sense of reality; where worlds very like our own come face to face with disaster and death – and like our world, the heroes rarely win. They might vanquish the evil presence – be it vampires, devils, or creatures sewn together from dead flesh – but nothing will let them forget their gruesome ordeal, or the terrible things they did to get out alive.
Hammer’s output was by no means consistent, though. Just as many hammy, garish flops emerged from Bray Studios as did genuinely chilling pieces of gothic horror.
However, for the uninitiated, for the curious, and especially for people who only know Peter Cushing as Tarkin in Star Wars, here are five Hammer horror films that have stood the unforgiving test of time, unquestionably earning the right to be called ‘classics’.
5. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, dir. Terence Fisher)
This isn’t what you think it is. It’s not an hour and a half of the infamous Creature snapping necks and wreaking havoc. The Creature (Christopher Lee in his breakthrough role) and his physical monstrosity are put firmly in the shade by Peter Cushing’s dark, enigmatic Baron Frankenstein.
The horror here is not exhibited in tasteless gore or cheap shocks. It comes from Frankenstein’s growing obsession; the mad, desperate acts he perpetrates, all under the auspices of science and progress. Director Terence Fisher shows us a Frankenstein who is murderous, treacherous, vindictive; who will sacrifice anyone and anything for the sake of his experiments.
Make no mistake; Frankenstein is the monster here, not his Creature. Yet Cushing doesn’t go for the traditional cackling. There’s not a trace of that maniacal cry “It’s alive!” He reveals Frankenstein’s true nature by degrees; in little smiles playing around his lips, in cold glances to his mistresses, even as he holds them in his arms. It’s not until his last moments on screen that he even so much as raises his voice, calling out to his former friend in chilling, unearthly screams.
4. Dracula (1958, dir. Terence Fisher)
The first and the best of Hammer’s dabbling in vampire lore. Christopher Lee is let loose as the Count himself, taking a wholly original and dynamic approach to the role. His Dracula cannot turn into bats or mist; he’s completely reliant on his wits and his sheer power of presence. Mortal men are utterly powerless before his gaze. Women fall under his spell, totally given over to his will.
Luckily for Victorian women with heaving bosoms everywhere, Dr. Van Helsing is on the case, and he has Dracula’s number. Cushing rises to the fore as the dashing vampire hunter, as intrepid and energetic in pursuit as he is patient and fatherly with those under his protection.
Considering the severely limited budget (a constant restriction on Hammer’s resources), Dracula offers a story of tremendous scope and vision. Where many Dracula adaptations have since faltered by heaping ponderous speeches about immortality and iffy accents on the Count, Fisher give us a Dracula who doesn’t waste words. In fact, beyond his opening pleasantries to Jonathan Harker, Lee has no lines at all, beyond the odd hiss or howl.
This works with Lee, though. He’s no sparkly, angst-ridden adolescent. He’s a near-unstoppable supernatural force – irresistible to his victims, and terrifying to his opponents.
3. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, dir. Terence Fisher)
More than 20 different versions of this Sherlock Holmes tale have been filmed over the last 70 years, but few, if any, have equalled Hammer’s version for thrills, for style or for sheer horror. Like Curse of Frankenstein, the horror is not in the reveal of the monster, but in the eerie, ominous atmosphere built up around and by the characters.
Cushing is back in the lead, this time as the world’s greatest detective (no, not Batman). He’s commissioned to look into the mysterious deaths surrounding Sir Henry Baskerville, cursed to die, as legend would have it, in terror in revenge for his ancestor’s crimes. Holmes warns Baskerville – do not go out on the Moors at night.
We follow in Watson’s footsteps for much of the film, taking in the bleak landscape, and the strange tenants of the Baskerville estate – any one of them seems capable of murder, and Fisher doesn’t let us forget it. Even for those familiar with the tale, the suspicions fly everywhere – did the old butler, cunning and subtly evasive, do it? Was it Dr Mortimer, with his flashing eyes and flaring temper? The mysteries and the tensions coil up, slow and deliberate, careful not to spring loose until the final, terrible solution presents itself.
2. She (1965, dir. Robert Day)
European castles get a break for once, as Hammer turns its attentions to Africa, and the troubling question of immortality. John Richardson, Bernard Cribbins and Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing, as recently de-mobbed WW1 soldiers, set out on a quest to find the lost city of Kuma, where Ayesha (Ursula Andress), an immortal Egyptian queen, awaits her reincarnated lover. She seems convinced that Leo Vincey (Richardson) is that lover, and proceeds to enchant, seduce and more or less throw herself at him until he agrees to be hers, forever.
There is, naturally, a catch. Being “changeless, ageless, deathless” has had its toll on Ayesha. In two thousand years of waiting, she has become a cruel, vindictive tyrant, wielding absolute power over a populace who live in mortal dread of seeing her elegant, flawless face.
Between the portents of doom and ruthless executions, director Robert Day also treats us to some truly breathtaking visuals – the spiralling backstreets of Cairo, desert vistas and labyrinthine halls of Kuma are no mere backdrops; they’re at the heart of what makes She so fascinating and enthralling.
It’s a story full of grim death and heart-breaking despair, yet Day never overloads on either. Cribbins and Cushing have a lot to do with this, bringing a light-hearted, human touch, trying but never quite succeeding to bring their friend back down to Earth. As Ayesha’s mystic fire finally descends, and the bodies pile up, a precious few are left to ponder, and to wish they’d listened to Bernard Cribbins.
1. The Devil Rides Out (1968, dir. Terence Fisher)
Hammer’s crowning glory sees Christopher Lee finally playing the hero, crossing swords with Charles Gray’s satanic priest, Mr Mocata. As the Duc de Richleau, Lee dominates this film, bringing the considerable presence he brought to Dracula and setting it against the powers of darkness.
In 1920s England, a friend of Richleau’s is being groomed for satanic baptism by Mocata, along with a fey young girl, Tanith. Lee and his sidekick make it their business to extract these impressionable young things from the society of creepy devil-worshippers.
There’s something distinctly un-nerving about an elderly dame’s eyes lighting up at the sight of a goat sacrifice, and Fisher is careful to let us see the actors’ reactions rather than the gruesome spectacle itself, knowing that our imaginations often paint a much darker picture for themselves. That said, there’s no shortage of violent possessions, cross-eyed demons and wide-eyed horror.
The lasting appeal of The Devil Rides Out can be summed up in one word. Wait, no it can’t. There’s far too many things that appeal about this film. Suffice to say, this is the ultimate Hammer Horror. It creeps. It thrills. It throws magic and astronomy and psychological warfare at us and never feels like it’s over-reaching itself. Lee speaks in mystic and severe tones, but we don’t feel talked down to or stupid for not knowing what the Grand Sabbat of the year is. This is not Christopher Lee’s favourite film for nothing.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.