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

By | May 11, 2019

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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

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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.