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Hammer Horror: How Christopher Lee's Dracula Rebooted A Genre

Entertainment | May 14, 2019

Left: Veronica Carlson with Christopher Lee in a publicity portrait issued for the film, 'Dracula Has Risen from the Grave', United Kingdom, 1968. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images) Right: Poster for 'The Devil Rides Out' (1968). Source: IMD

In the daring '60s, horror films enjoyed a renaissance thanks to the eerie performances of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in Hammer Horror films -- a reimagining of scary movies for the changing times. Hammer, a British production company, packed its movies with castles, atmosphere, macabre monsters and seductive damsels (who themselves might be monsters as well). Hammer films brought more chills and sex appeal to a genre that had thrived in the Universal era but had been dormant. Viewers in the U.K. and the United States loved the stylish new interpretations of known entities like Dracula and Frankenstein.

It was a different sort of British Invasion -- while bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were taking the States by storm with their mop top hairdos and skinny suits, Hammer Horror was ripping through American movie theaters. These films were nothing like young, American audiences had ever seen. It was atmospheric, gory, and very cheap. Hammer Horror films had many of the same central characters as the Universal horror films - Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy - but the versions from London had a little more flair.

When Hammer began exporting their brand of gothic horror to the States in 1957, they were doing so in confluence with an unpredicted comeback of the genre. By the mid-60s Hammer was known as the horror fan’s horror, with the films inspiring a generation of young fans to get more cinematic and a little more bloody. Hammer’s still releasing films today, but like their counterparts in the British Invasion, they put out their best stuff in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Hammer’s Humble Beginnings

source: pinterest

Hammer wasn’t always a horror studio. The studio got its start in 1935 when William Hinds started making films on Regent Street in London. Initially the production company did what most production companies do, they released a wide variety of films hoping to capitalize on every quadrant of the market. Their films failed to attract any real attention and they went under by 1937.

Nearly a decade later, with the son of its founder in charge, Hammer was resurrected through Exclusive, a distribution company that they’d worked with during their run in the ‘30s. Following the end of World War II, with many English cities ravaged by aerial bombing, the studio found that people just wanted to go to the movies so it started churning out whatever they could as quickly as possible. Hammer released anywhere from five to nine movies a year, which is astounding for a modest-sized British production company. 

The Curse Of Frankenstein Strikes In 1957 

Peter Cushing (left) and Christopher Lee in 'The Curse Of Frankenstein' (1957). Source: IMDB

Horror crawled back into theaters, and onto television screens, in 1957, changing the tide of popular cinema with young viewers, and inspiring legions of fans. In America, Universal pictures released a package of their classic 1930s horror films called “Shock!” to regional television stations. This had young fans glued to their TVs and hungry for more horror. Luckily, they could pop down to the theaters to see an all new take on the Frankenstein story, the Hammer Horror film The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as The Creature.

This film offered a gothic take on the story that was both at odds with the Universal version of the story - legally it had to be - and still familiar. In the following years Hammer released films that featured stories and monsters Americans already loved, albeit in different situations. Dracula, the Mummy, and a werewolf that definitely wasn’t Universal’s Wolf Man could be seen in theaters, and most of them were played by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. 

Hammer Horror's Films Weren't Expensive

Christopher Lee in 'The Mummy' (1959); Prudence Hyman in 'The Gorgon' (1964). Source: IMDB

Did we mention that these movies were cheap? Not dirt cheap, but the films definitely had a DIY, independent sensibility that was shared stateside by Roger Corman’s American Independent Pictures (AIP). Hammer’s movies were shot as inexpensively as possible, and they’d often film two movies back to back with the same sets, cast, and crew. Their movies made a significant amount of money, but like the modern day Blumhouse, Hammer operated on a commonsense (and money-saving) principle -- why shoot a film for ₤500,000 when you can shoot it ₤100,000?

To further streamline their shooting process, Hammer moved into Down Place on the Thames, a castle-like structure that served as both an office and a shooting location. Down was rebuilt and had its sets swapped around time and time again in order to make sure that the sets didn’t look too similar.

The movies looked good, the gore was in Technicolor, and the world was shrouded in fog. Even though Dracula’s world didn’t cost a million dollars, the architecture and atmosphere were enough to make it plenty chilling.

Dracula Comes To Swinging London

Left: Christopher Lee, Stephanie Beacham, Marsha A. Hunt, Janet Key, and Caroline Munro in 'Dracula A.D. 1972' (1972). Right: Peter Cushing in 'The Evil Of Frankenstein' (1964). Source: IMDB

There’s a clear demarcation in the “classic” Hammer Horror films and those that are more fun but less prestigious. In the ‘70s, Hammer made sequels of sequels, and after nearly a decade of telling gothic stories set in foggy castles it was time for the monsters to take a trip to swinging London, baby. For fans of high camp, films like Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and The Vampire Lovers offered a psychedelic take on classic horror films.

One of the major components that made these films so intriguing and strange was their inclusion of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Each of them played their standard characters (Van Helsing and Dracula) but they were transported into the mod scene all of its affectations.

Even The Odd Satanic Cult Movie

Scenes from 'The Devil Rides Out' (1968). Left: Nike Arrighi and Charles Gray. Right: Eddie Powell in costume. Source: IMDB

This era isn’t exactly maligned, but it’s certainly not heralded as the greatest moment for Hammer, although we’re big fans of Hammer’s work in the early ‘70s. One undisputed film in this late period run is The Devil Rides Out, a tense thriller about that awkward moment when you realize you’re hanging out with a Satanic cult. If you like a dose of weird in your horror, you’ve got to check out Hammer in the ‘70s. 

Some Hammer Horror Films Flirted With Self-Parody

Left: Susan Denberg and Peter Cushing in 'Frankenstein Created Woman' (1967). Right: Martine Beswick in 'Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde' (1971). Source: IMDB

Even though Hammer’s films played a major part in defining horror from the late ‘50s through the ‘60s, by the early ‘70s critics and fans were ready for something new. Horror became both more intense and auteur-inclined, with films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist introducing audiences to more personal types of horror. Even though The Exorcist mostly takes place in one location, like a Hammer film, it managed to make something like Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde look vulgar by comparison.

The '70s Put A Stake Through Hammer's Heart

Left: Valerie Leon in 'Blood From The Mummy's Tomb' (1971). Right: Yvonne Romain and Oliver Reed in 'The Curse of the Werewolf' (1961). Source: IMDB

By the late ‘70s Hammer more or less called it a day. 1979 saw the release of the final Hammer Horror film, The Lady Vanishes. The company would release an anthology series in the ‘80s, but it lacked the groove of the studio’s earlier work. Even though Hammer fizzled out, their work from the late ‘50s through the early ‘70s is an absolute must see.

Tags: Christopher Lee | Hammer Horror | Horror | Movies In The 1960s | Movies In The 1970s | Peter Cushing

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.