Hammer is one of Britain’s most loved and respected film companies, especially for horror fans the world over. Hammer made waves in the mid to late 50s with The Quatermass Experiment (the first film to receive an ‘X’ certificate in Britain), 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, and then again in 1958 with Dracula (or Horror of Dracula). Both the Frankenstein and Dracula films starred the legendary Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and were directed by Terence Fisher, and their success contributed to an eventual teaming up with Seven Arts Productions, and then, more importantly, with entertainment titans Warner Bros. And that’s the period that this interesting new documentary focuses on. It was a successful but ultimately troubling and yet fascinating era for the studio, that’s well worth investigating, and writer/director Marcus Hearn does a decent enough job here, paying attention to some of Hammer’s best and most successful, as well as their not so great and not so successful pictures.
In 1968, Hammer Studios were rewarded for their hard work and obvious talents with the Queen’s Award to Industry. It’s then that our story picks up, and we learn about Hammer’s first film with Warner Bros, the sequel Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, starring Christopher Lee in the titular role as the infamous Count. It features interviews with one of Hammer’s much loved beauties, Veronica Carlson, amongst others including film writers, critics, and historians, such as Jonathon Rigby, Denis Miekle and Steve Chibnall, as well as legendary horror director Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling, The ‘Burbs) and genre legend Caroline Munro (Dracula AD 1972, Captain Cronos Vampire Hunter, The Last Horror Film, Slaughter High), all of which help discuss and dissect a time when horror was starting to go through a change.
In 1968, George A Romero’s zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead was released, and its shocking gore as well as its political subtext and leanings meant that a new breed of horror cinema and film-making was on its way. Hammer may have released Plague of the Zombies in 1966, but as good as it was, Romero’s release was the first of a few lessons for Hammer, that in order to survive and remain a success as a studio they would have to move with the times and push boundaries, as well as keep their dedicated following happy. Fortunately, Dracula has Risen From the Grave‘s clever artwork and marketing helped make it Hammer’s biggest success so far. So far, so good for the Hammer/Warner Bros team.
Next up was another success story in terms of the Dracula franchise, with series’ highlight Taste the Blood of Dracula with Christopher Lee yet again in the title role, alongside lovely Linda Hayden and Madeline Smith, in 1969. But one of the hottest topics of conversation in the documentary is the controversy of the sequel, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, also released in 1969, which saw Hammer taking a darker, more violent route, possibly to compete with the more violent and transgressive horror film-making emerging from the U.S. As is discussed in the documentary, a rape scene was thrown into the film during the final days of shooting at the behest of pretty much all involved. Was it this reluctance to go along with apparent current trends in cinema at the time (it’s worth pointing out that Taste the Blood of Dracula was set in Victorian England, which could be seen to alienate some audiences who prefer modern day settings) that led to Hammer’s struggles later on? A definite possibility.
Also discussed are some of Hammer’s more “obscure” and consequently not so well received films, such as Crescendo, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Moon Zero Two. These are still interesting to hear about, and important to the documentary and this period overall, as they discuss Hammer’s attempts at moving with the times, experimenting with different genres, and also introducing new talent, behind and in front of the camera. This is something that the company doesn’t often get credit for, so it’s nice to see acknowledged, and will definitely be of interest to those with a limited understanding of Hammer, or who think that Hammer is exclusively about horror films.
With the likes of the game-changing The Exorcist in 1973, breaking all sorts of records and garnering all kinds of controversy everywhere, closely followed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, and the likes of Stephen King novels and adaptations, and the popularity of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series of books, horror and cinema in general was going in an interesting, brave and more confrontational direction than ever before. The impact that had on Hammer and its films and relationship with Warner Bros is further discussed in a documentary that may contain parts that are familiar for Hammer obsessives and lovers, but are still well worth a look for passing or casual fans of the era, or of Hammer/old school horror in general. But Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years is essential for those that have watched, still watch, and enjoy the films that were made by a company with an obvious passion for what they did, and with the talent and hard-working ethic to make it a success for as long as they could.