FEW names in horror command more respect than Hammer.
The director John Carpenter has said that seeing “The Curse of Frankenstein,” the first gothic hit by Hammer Film Productions, as a kid transformed him. Another esteemed veteran of the genre, Joe Dante, said the same movie lived up to its tag line promise to “haunt you forever.” And Martin Scorsese has described an obscure sequel, “Frankenstein Created Woman,” as “close to something sublime.”
What makes the enduring reputation of Hammer, the tiny British fantasy factory, even more impressive is that the company all but disappeared right as the horror genre boomed. Hammer struggled financially through much of the 1970s, ceasing production by the end of the decade. What’s more surprising perhaps is that since then reviving Hammer, built on sequels and remakes, has proven far more difficult than reanimating Frankenstein’s monster.
A group of admirers, including the director Richard Donner, looked into buying Hammer in the 1980s before discovering that it didn’t own many of its best-known properties. A consortium led by the art dealer Charles Saatchi did buy Hammer in 2000, announcing plans to make new films but never doing so. Then in 2007 Simon Oakes, a cable television executive who had noticed the frequency that Hammer was mentioned in the press, spearheaded the acquisition of the company’s film library and raised what was reported as $50 million to make new movies. His focus has not been on remaking Hammer movies, although he’s not ruling that out.
His challenge is capitalizing on the affection for Hammer while updating the company to adjust with the times. In its heyday, which roughly spanned a decade starting in the mid-1950s, the films broke ground with their lush Technicolor, sexual frankness and unlikely mix of teasing exploitation and classically trained class. None of those elements are new anymore. As popular as Hammer is among horror buffs, it is also relatively unknown to young audiences reared on “Paranormal Activity.”
The early efforts by the rebooted Hammer, including the acclaimed remake “Let Me In” and “The Resident,” have not found huge box office success. But Mr. Oakes, the chief executive and president, said that those were only “building blocks” setting up his ambitious next move, a $13 million adaptation of “The Woman in Black,” opening Friday. Like the classic Hammer movies, this ghost story, shot in Britain, is a period piece with a high-toned pedigree. (Adapted from a Susan Hill novella, it also was a long-running West End play.) In keeping with Hammer tradition, it has a star. In his first post-Harry Potter film role, Daniel Radcliffe plays a guilt-ridden father and lawyer who starts seeing ghosts while going through the estate of a recently deceased woman. “For Hammer to succeed, it has to honor its legacy,” Mr. Oakes said by Skype.
What that means is not obvious, since Hammer has a long, colorful history full of reinventions. But the upscale direction of the new Hammer is a far cry from the company’s origins. It was founded in 1934 by a group led by a music hall comic named William Hinds, whose stage name was Will Hammer. While the company dabbled in comedy and science fiction, its most sustained and successful movies were gothic costume dramas that revisited the classic Universal Pictures monsters.
This cycle kicked off in 1957 with the taut “Curse of Frankenstein,” a significant departure from the Boris Karloff classic, although many of the changes were ones of necessity. While the novel was in the public domain, the earlier film’s signature neck bolts were not. Hammer beefed up the doctor character and made the monster appear more recognizably human. The streamlined script kept the shooting schedule short and cut the rampaging villagers because, well, crowds are expensive.
The company’s house screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s memoir was tellingly called “Do You Want It Good or Tuesday?” And the tireless go-to director Terrence Fisher was famously efficient, scrupulously storyboarding and never taking lunch. While they worked quickly and on a shoestring, this gave them urgency and a bare-bones intimacy. In a decade full of flying saucers and atomic age-inspired beasts, the scares in films like “Curse of Frankenstein” were often found in close-ups of the human face.
A dry English wit also sneaks into these creepy productions, embodied deftly by one of the Hammer’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing, who played Dr. Frankenstein opposite the other, Christopher Lee, as the silent monster. Whereas American stars of low-budget horror often indulged in flamboyant camp, Mr. Cushing underplayed beautifully. After assisting the monster in killing an innocent, he opens the next scene at breakfast, saying in civilized tone, “Pass the marmalade.”
The success of “The Curse of Frankenstein” led the following year to “Horror of Dracula,” in which, long before “Twilight,” Mr. Lee’s vampire made his female victims swoon. His seductive entrance made Mr. Lee a major star and also captivated a young Mr. Scorsese, who recently cast him in “Hugo.” Hammer movies, replete with heaving bosoms and laddish innuendo, were often more explicit about sex than violence. “People wanted the beautiful women with the splash of blood,” said Shane Briant, who appeared in four Hammer movies. “That’s why they went to see Hammer.”
With their resourceful design and startling hues, Hammer movies also looked much more expensive than they were. “It was a big deal to see color in horror movies back then,” said Tobe Hooper, director of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” who explained in an earlier interview that he loved Hammer so much that as a child he made eight-millimeter imitations. Glenn McQuaid, a director whose early love of Hammer inspired his 2008 film, “I Sell the Dead,” argued in an interview that the vivid coloring in movies like “Brides of Dracula” anticipated the flamboyantly gruesome movies of Dario Argento. “It’s stunning,” he said, “the lush, surreal use of lilacs and red and deep purple.”
Hammer began to face stiff competition in the early 1960s from low-budget American horror, including Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. “The Hammer films were a fraction more obvious,” Mr. Corman said in a previous interview. “I was trying to be a little more subtle, but basically we were doing the same things.” That was not the case with the horror explosion of the following decade, when more urgently contemporary and brutally harsh horror movies like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Exorcist” made Hammer seem stuffy.
Hammer struggled to catch up, recasting vampires in a modern context (“Dracula A.D. 1972”) or serving up nude lesbian vampires (“The Vampire Lovers”). But such attempts often seemed a step slow, or worse. Adding a rape scene to the 1969 film “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” not only alienated the star Veronica Carlson, who refused to act in another Hammer film, but also appeared random and desperate.
The push for more explicit and outrageous material in horror has hardly abated, but instead of trying to compete, the current Hammer is going defiantly upscale. “Let Me In” was a stunningly shot, stately paced movie, one of the best-reviewed horror remakes ever. And “The Woman in Black” is a tasteful ghost story in the spirit of “The Haunting.” Its director, James Watkins, even shies away from the word “horror” (so does Christopher Lee), insisting that scares are not the whole point. The film is “about something,” he said. “It’s about loss.”
“The Woman in Black” has the sweeping scenes of a more expensive movie than the old Hammer productions, largely shot in one house on the Thames. The violence is discreet and not one heaving bosom is in attendance. In this regard the new Hammer is not looking to its tradition.
While its movies seem polite by today’s standards, Hammer’s gothics were shocking in their time. The Sunday Times in London published a sternly disapproving consideration of its early gothic movies: “For years I have rushed to defend the cinema against the charge that it debases,” the longtime critic Dilys Powell wrote. “In the case of the current series of horror films I have changed my mind.”
Mr. Oakes, who said he’s not a “massive horror geek” but a longtime lover of Hammer, will probably not receive such moralizing notices. He said he was focused on suspense and mythology, arguing that the new Hammer films will have the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock. “If we did something gory and cleavage ridden, it would be a pastiche,” he said. “If we become successful, we could make a pastiche version of an old Hammer just for fun. But I don’t think that works.” Raising the potential for respectability (not to mention diversification) he has developed a Hammer book imprint at Random House, and there’s even a theater project in the works, an adaptation of a still-to-be-named 1950s novel, aiming for a West End run at the end of this year.
Hammer, like horror itself, has become more mainstream, but its challenge today remains maybe even more formidable. John Landis — director of “An American Werewolf in London” and author of the insightful horror history “Monsters in the Movies,” a recent release that features a Hammer photo on seemingly every other page — put it in historical context in an e-mail: “The classic Hammer pictures were well produced on low budgets, featuring actors of great style and seriousness and showed things (blood, gore and nudity) the American films of the time did not. The new Hammer just has to make intelligent pictures, something harder to do in today’s market than you would think.”
By JASON ZINOMAN
The above article is copyright of The New York Times
The above article is copyright of The New York Times
Original news article features here :NYT