176 pages, Titan Books
Hereward L.M. Proops
I went a little bit weak at the knees when I reviewed Ian Nathan's magnificent “Alien Vault” back in September 2011. When I heard that the Titan Books were bringing out a volume celebrating the legendary Hammer Studios, I knew I would be in for a treat.
For those of you who don't know, Hammer Studios were a British film production company who became famous for their output of horror and science fiction movies from the 1950s till the mid-1970s. They were the company who brought unprecedented levels of blood and gore to British cinema screens and shocked the censors with scandalous sexual content. By modern standards, the studio's output seems pretty tame but one only has to look at the number of classic shockers produced by Hammer to realise what an impact their films had. Films such as “The Quatermass Xperiment”, “Dracula” and “The Curse of Frankenstein” shattered the conventions of cinema and helped to elevate the actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to stardom.
Marcus Hearn's “The Hammer Vault” is not an exhaustive biography of Hammer Studios. Rather, it is a celebration of their output and collects hundreds of photos, clippings, behind-the-scenes pictures and promotional materials relating to their most popular films from the 1950s to the present day incarnation of Hammer films. Those looking for a comprehensive look at the studio's back-catalogue will find this book lacking. However, those with an interest in horror or science fiction cinema will find this a veritable treasure trove. A huge, full-colour hardback, “The Hammer Vault” is a great coffee-table book. Whilst not as stylishly assembled as “The Alien Vault” with its slipcase and vellum inserts, “The Hammer Vault” is still an attractive book, perfect for movie geeks to dip into.
Starting with the black-and-white era, the book chronicles the shockwaves created by science fiction thrillers “The Quatermass Xperiment”, its sequel “Quatermass II” and the staggeringly gruesome imitation “X: The Unknown”. The critics were horrified, but the audiences loved them. It's great to see copies of the letters that bounced between the studio and the outraged censors, as well as the often ludicrous methods of advertising the X-rated films (such as using the children's toy Meccano to promote the very adult “X: The Unknown”).
When Hammer started making films in colour, they continued to push the boundaries of good taste. Colour film enabled the studio to show lashings and lashings of thick red blood, and adaptations of the classic novels “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” brought the studio success overseas. Believe it or not, but until Terence Fisher's 1958 “Dracula” (known as “Horror of Dracula” in the United States), nobody had picked up on the erotic undertones in the original novel, and Christopher Lee's darkly sensual performance as the Count was considered utterly scandalous at the time. The success of the original films led to a plethora of sequels, each of which upped the ante in terms of sex and gore. Critics continued to revile the films but the studio's profits were a clear indication that the critics were not in touch with the cinema-going public. This was the period where Hammer Studios put out some of the greatest double-bills: “Dracula Prince of Darkness” and “The Plague of the Zombies”; “Rasputin” and “The Reptile”; “The Gorgon” and “The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb”. All great movies that still entertain to this day. The book includes pictures of some of the promotional items given to cinema-goers. Cardboard vampire fangs, Phantom of the Opera masks and fake Rasputin beards. The studio became adept at maximising their profits through canny marketing to their target audiences.
“The Hammer Vault” also gives readers a great look behind-the-scenes at the studio. We are treated to copies of screenplays containing lines of dialogue so dreadful that Christopher Lee refused to speak them, sketches for costume ideas by Peter Cushing himself, even internal memos from exasperated directors to tight-fisted producers. This abundance of material is fascinating, but also provides readers with a glimpse of where things went wrong. An over-reliance on sequels meant that the traditional Hammer horror formula (Victorian gothic setting + sex + gore = movie) had become played-out and the studios rather desperate attempts to appeal to a broader audience led to misfires such as the unintentionally hilarious “Dracula A.D. 1972” or the deeply unpleasant “To the Devil a Daughter”. Not every film from this period was a failure. 1974 saw the studio team up with Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers to produce the world's first kung-fu horror film, “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires”. Although not a critical or commercial success, the film is totally unique and has to be seen to be believed. To this day, Hammer's martial arts / Dracula mash-up has a cult following with fans including “Pan's Labyrinth” director Guillermo Del Toro.
For Hammer fanboys, the section on unmade Hammer movies is sure to be the most exciting. There are a number of truly intriguing pre-production posters included in the book and they provide a glimpse of what might have been. From the bombastic “Zeppelin v Pterodactyls” and the tits-out insanity of “When the Earth Cracked Open” to the kinky-looking comic book adaptation of “Vampirella”, I found myself wishing that the studio had the resources and the nerve to see these films through to completion. The revelation that Hammer had planned a sequel to “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” set in India titled “Kali... Devil Bride of Dracula” blew me away, but then to learn that Hammer was planning a Godzilla-style movie with Japan's Toho Studios called “Nessie” made me feel positively light-headed.
The final part of the book looks at the studio's brief foray into television in the early 1980s and the successful resurrection of Hammer films after a 24 year silence. Recent productions such as the so-so “Wake Wood” and the rather good “Let Me In” are given a few pages but it is a shame that 2012's excellent “Woman in Black” gets just a brief mention in the introduction. Of course, should Hearn release an updated, expanded edition the hugely successful film will doubtless get a look-in.
Affordable, immensely entertaining and informative, “The Hammer Vault” is a wonderful book. Fans of Hammer horror should not be without it.
Hereward L.M. Proops