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12 Essential Hammer Horror Films


Hammer was the little film company that blazed a trail through horror movie history. While Hammer produced a wide variety of films, including comedies, crime films, sci-fi and even caveman fantasy epics like One Million Years B.C., it was as a maker of horror films that it became most famous. So much so that it almost became synonymous with the horror genre, with the “Hammer horror” label becoming a brand name in its own right.


Christopher Lee as Dracula, with rubber bat co-star

Although Hammer was founded in the early 1930s, it wasn't until the 1950s that it enjoyed significant success. This was mainly due to its popular horror films. Its embrace of the horror genre turned it from a small time 'B' picture operation to one of the world's best known film companies. Hammer was so successful in its heyday that in 1968 the company was awarded the Queen's Award to Industry for its export success. Although their horror films were initially critically reviled, they have picked up many devoted fans and eventually even attracted critical praise.

Choosing ten essential Hammer horror films is difficult. So difficult that I gave up and made it twelve instead! In making this list, I decided not just to go with personal favourites, but to pick the films that I think are the best, the most significant and the most representative of Hammer's horror output.

So here are, in chronological order, 12 essential Hammer horror films. Feel free to complain if your favourite isn't here.


The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)


The Quatermass Xperiment  is very different from Hammer's more familiar gothic horror films, but this is the film that put the studio in the horror business. Filmed in black and white, instead of colour, and with modern settings, in some ways it's a quintessential 1950s science fiction film. But there are echoes of the Frankenstein story in its tale of scientific exploration gone horribly wrong.

Three men are sent into space on board a rocket designed by Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy). But when the rocket returns to Earth only one man, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), remains. Carroon has become infected with a strange alien organism and is gradually mutating.

In its early days, Hammer often turned to subjects already familiar to audiences, including popular TV and radio series. In this case, the source material was the 1953 BBC TV serial The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale. The title was tweaked slightly to become The Quatermass Xperiment to cash in on the new-ish 'X' certificate for horror films. Even at this stage, Hammer had one eye on the U.S. market, and so hired American actor Brian Donlevy to play Professor Quatermass. In the U.S. the film was released under the more generic title The Creeping Unknown.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a hit, and helped to create a new sci-fi sub genre, with others soon following into this territory, including Hammer itself with a sequel Quatermass 2 (1957) (released as Enemy from Space in the U.S.) and a spiritual successor, X the Unknown (1956). The latter was originally intended to be another Quatermass film, but Hammer were not granted the rights to use the Quatermass name. A third official Quatermass film, Quatermass and the Pit, followed in 1967.


The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)


It was the success of The Quatermass Xperiment that sowed the seeds for Hammer's entry into gothic horror, with several Hammer personnel noticing similarities to a certain novel by Mary Shelley.

Hammer's version of Frankenstein took great care to differentiate itself from the famous Universal film series of the 1930s and 1940s, although this was probably more from a fear of legal action than any particular desire to be original.

Hammer's version, The Curse of Frankenstein, presents a nasty and amoral Victor Frankenstein, no longer a misguided scientist out of his depth, but a ruthless sociopath. The role is played to perfection by an icy and calculating Peter Cushing, teamed for the first time by Hammer with a then little-known supporting actor called Christopher Lee, who was cast as the creature Frankenstein creates from assorted body parts. The two actors would become synonymous not only with Hammer but with British horror films generally.

The film was created by a team who were central to Hammer's early successes, and who would be involved in many of their horror films over the next decade or more. These included director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, art director Bernard Robinson, editor James Needs and cinematographer Jack Asher. In The Curse of Frankenstein the Hammer team made the most of a relatively limited budget, making this look like a more expensive film than it really was, a tradition that would be followed by Hammer's other horror films.

Despite trimming by the censor, The Curse of Frankenstein was gruesome for the time, especially as colour horror films were still rare, and it remains one of Hammer's gorier films. The critics were outraged, but the public flocked to the cinemas in droves.

Hammer followed up with six sequels, Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973), all starring Peter Cushing, and a misguided reboot, Horror of Frankenstein (1970), with Ralph Bates.


Dracula (1958)


How do you follow up a smash hit film about Frankenstein? By making one about Dracula, obviously.

Hammer's Dracula (retitled Horror of Dracula in the U.S., to distance itself from the 1931 Bela Lugosi film) reunited the team from The Curse of Frankenstein, with the same writer, director, producer, cinematographer, designer and composer.

Dracula also reunited that film's two new British horror stars, but this time Peter Cushing played the hero, ace vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing. Pitted against him was Christopher Lee's Count Dracula, a more aggressive and at times animalistic interpretation than previous versions. The six foot five Lee looks every inch the European aristocrat, but he also brings the character's sexual suggestiveness to the fore. Lee's Frankenstein's monster was memorable, but his commanding Dracula is his greatest screen role and the one that's most indelibly etched onto the public consciousness.

One of Hammer's most visually striking films, Dracula is cleverly designed by art director Bernard Robinson and handsomely photographed by Jack Asher. Working from a sharp script by Jimmy Sangster, Hammer's star director Terence Fisher handles the material with great skill. If The Curse of Frankenstein set the Hammer horror formula, then it was Dracula that perfected it.

The Dracula series would become Hammer's second cash cow after Frankenstein, with the studio producing seven Dracula sequels; The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).


The Mummy (1959)


With Universal acting as distributor on Hammer's successful version of Dracula, the American studio encouraged Hammer to plunder their extensive horror back catalogue of the 1930s and '40s in search of another hit. So Hammer took the obvious next step and filmed a new version of The Mummy, re-teaming their two horror stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing plays the film's hero, explorer John Banning, whose expedition uncovers the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Princess Ananka, but also accidentally awakens her mummified high priest Kharis.

Peter Cushing gets a slightly less colourful role than usual, while the acting plaudits go to Christopher Lee as the mummified Kharis, giving a remarkable performance while wrapped in bandages and using not much more than his eyes.

The Mummy series never equalled Hammer's Frankenstein and Dracula ones and was quickly relegated to co-feature status, but this first film finds the Hammer creative team on good form. Two sequels followed, The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) and The Mummy's Shroud (1966) as well as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars, but neither Cushing or Lee featured in any of them.


The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)


By 1959 Hammer was on a roll, with popular film versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy all recently released. And with two previous Sherlock Holmes series already, a 5 film 1930s one with Arthur Wontner as Holmes, and a 14 film one with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in the 1930s and '40s, Sherlock Holmes must have seemed like a good bet for another successful Hammer film series.

The studio's top star, Peter Cushing, was cast as Holmes, and the character actor and Hammer regular André Morell as Dr. Watson, with Christopher Lee also appearing, this time in a supporting role as Sir Henry Baskerville. Cushing is perfect as Holmes while Morell makes for an intelligent and authoritative Watson, and this is a lively and engaging version of the Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Sadly, it was a box office disappointment, which put paid to the possibility of a Hammer Sherlock Holmes series. Cushing would play Sherlock Holmes again in a 1960s BBC series and a 1980s TV film The Masks of Death.


The Brides of Dracula (1960)


Hammer's Dracula series regularly presented the studio with two problems. The first was how to devise a plausible way of reviving a character who had usually been killed at the end of the previous film. The second was how to persuade Christopher Lee to return to a part he increasingly disdained.

This first Dracula sequel solves both problems by leaving out Count Dracula altogether. Instead, the villainous vampire this time is Baron Meinster, a disciple of Dracula's. Meinster is finding new disciples, and his principle hunting ground is a girls' finishing school, allowing Hammer to increase the obligatory heaving bosom and scanty nightdress quota.

As Meinster, David Peel makes for a disappointing replacement for Christopher Lee, but this is partly made up for by the return of Peter Cushing as Dracula's nemesis, Van Helsing. The script isn't as strong as the 1958 Dracula, but the team are otherwise on excellent form and this is another visual triumph for director Terence Fisher, designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher.


The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)


Oliver Reed would become a bankable star by the end of the 1960s, but at this time he was an up-and-coming Hammer player, regularly cast as burly characters or minor villains. He got his first starring role in Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf, as a young man whose tragic conception, as the son of a servant girl raped by a beggar, has caused a curse to be brought upon him. When the local livestock starts being slaughtered on the full moon, we all know who's to blame.

The Wolfman was another of the old Universal monsters, first seen in the 1941 film of the same name. This Hammer version was randomly set in Spain, because the studio had intended to make a film about the Spanish Inquisition, but ran into trouble with the censors. With that film abandoned, Hammer had some unused Spanish town sets gathering dust, so this new version of the werewolf story had its location shifted to 18th century Spain.

The Curse of the Werewolf isn't quite up to the standard of the earlier Hammer horrors, but it's not a bad effort and it's a significant film for the studio, while Reed is well cast as the hairy hero. And if you've seen The Curse of FrankensteinDracula and The Mummy, then you might as well complete the set. Unlike those films, Hammer never pursued a wolfman series and this was their only major werewolf film.


The Plague of the Zombies (1966)


The Plague of the Zombies gives regular Hammer actor André Morell a rare leading role. Morell plays Sir James Forbes, an eminent doctor called to Cornwall by his old friend Dr. Tompson (Brook Williams) to investigate a mystery illness sweeping through the area.

Sir James discovers that the local squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson), has learned some new tricks during his time in Haiti, and is turning the locals into zombies. Hamilton is using the zombified villagers as slave labour in his dangerous tin mines, giving this Hammer production an element of sly socio-economic critique.

The Plague of the Zombies was filmed back-to-back with Hammer's other Cornish-set horror The Reptile (1966) by the same director, John Gilling. It's best known for its creepy dream sequence, in which the undead crawl out of their graves to attack the hero. Like most of Hammer's monster menagerie, zombies were decidedly unfashionable when The Plague of the Zombies appeared, but that would change with the release of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead only two years later.


Quatermass and the Pit (1967)


There's something strange lurking in the London Underground in Quatermass and the Pit, the third and final film in the Hammer Quatermass series.

This time Professor Quatermass is called in when a huge, mysterious, metallic object is uncovered during excavations at the Underground station at Hobbs End, an area with a history of ghosts, poltergeists and other supernatural phenomena. Is the strange object really a giant WWII bomb as the army believes, or is it something even more terrifying and mind-boggling?

This film was based on the 1950s BBC TV serial of the same name, but original writer Nigel Kneale's dissatisfaction with the casting of Brian Donlevy as Professor Quatermass in the film versions of The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2, kept the third film from being made for nearly a decade. Instead, Scottish actor and Hammer regular Andrew Keir stepped in to play the role. 

Quatermass and the Pit, released as Five Million Years to Earth in North America, ends the Quatermass series in style, and is one of Hammer's most intelligent and intriguing films.

Read more on Quatermass and the Pit here.


The Devil Rides Out (1968)


The Devil Rides Out is set in England in the 1930s, and is notable for providing regular Hammer horror star Christopher Lee with an unfamiliar heroic role.

Lee plays the Duc de Richleau, who investigates when his friend's son, Simon (Patrick Mower), seems to have gone off the rails and fallen in with a bad lot. Richleau discovers that Simon has been recruited by a group of devil worshippers, led by the sinister Mocata (Charles Gray). Richleau has to rescue Simon and another young recruit, Tanith (Niké Arrighi), from the clutches of the cult, and fend off the efforts of Mocata to bring the forces of darkness upon them.

Retitled The Devil's Bride in the U.S., The Devil Rides Out was based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, scripted by noted screenwriter Richard Matheson and helmed by Hammer's top director, Terence Fisher.

Although Dennis Wheatley was pleased with the film, it was a box office disappointment, especially in the U.S. And that's a surprise, because it's one of the company's most entertaining films, an irresistible Hammer mix of horror, thrills and hokey special effects.


Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)


Hammer's output was changing in the early 1970s. The company's staple Dracula and Frankenstein series both went through unsuccessful attempts at an update, and Hammer needed to find new subjects and new stars.

One of the actors it attempted to build into a new horror star was Ralph Bates. This is especially bizarre if you grew up in Britain in the 1980s or 1990s, as I did, and so were more familiar with Bates as a hapless sitcom hero in the TV series Dear John. But Ralph Bates was also a regular feature of Hammer's 1970s horror films, appearing in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Fear in the Night (1972), and he took over the lead role of Victor Frankenstein from Peter Cushing in 1970's Horror of Frankenstein.

In Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Bates plays Henry Jekyll, a scientist in Victorian London whose experiments searching for an elixir of life not only lead to drastic character changes, but also to an unexpected gender switch. Jekyll is temporarily turned into a woman (played by Martine Beswick), who tells his friends that she is his widowed sister Mrs Hyde. Jekyll soon finds that he needs more female hormones to continue his experiments, leading him to use the services of grave robbers Burke and Hare, and eventually sending his female alter ego in a homicidal direction. This leads to her killing prostitutes in (did you guess?) Whitechapel in 1888.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde demonstrates Hammer's efforts to enter new territory in the early 1970s, while still remaining true to its Victorian gothic roots. It's also very recognisably a Hammer film of that time, not only in its casting and more explicit sexuality, but in its mashing of genres and story elements, from Jekyll and Hyde to Jack the Ripper and even throwing in grave robbers Burke and Hare. If it's not quite Hammer's best film of the 1970s, then it is one of its most interesting and representative.


Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1972)


Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde had been written by Brian Clemens, best known at the time as a writer and script editor on the TV Series The Avengers. A year later Hammer called on Clemens again, this time to write and direct Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, another attempt to expand Hammer's range and style.

German actor Horst Janson plays professional vampire hunter Captain Kronos, who is called in to investigate a spate of attacks on young women, who are being drained of their youth. Kronos is aided by his hunchback assistant, Hieronymous Grost (John Cater), and a local gypsy girl, Carla (Caroline Munro).

Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is one of the cultiest of Hammer's cult films, due to its unusual mixture of horror, fantasy, mystery and swashbuckling adventure. Brian Clemens's script rings the changes on the Hammer formula, subverting it and even totally upending it in places, and re-writing vampire lore as it goes.

Horst Janson's leading role marked another attempt by Hammer to create a new star, and there seem to have been hopes for a Captain Kronos series. But, although the film was produced in 1972, it didn't find a cinema release until 1974. It wasn't a box office success, and rising production costs, changing tastes and patchy distribution helped to put Hammer out of the film business by the end of the decade.


If you have a favourite Hammer film, or one you think should be included here, then you can let me know in the comments.


This article is part of the Second Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews.





Comments

  1. Great list. I really have to get more into Hammer Horror. They also made some very good Noir in the 50s.

    Hammer Horror films may have been critically reviled but not being the critics's darling is usually a point in their favor for me. I really love Quatermass and the Pit.

    BTW, there is a very good little crime movie called Cash on Demand with Peter Cushing and Andre Morell. It's on youtube and well worth checking out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Curse of Frankenstein is probably the best place to start, as it created the style that made them so successful.

      I did watch Cash on Demand earlier this year. I don't think I was expecting much, I just assumed it would be a modest crime B picture, but it was really good. Cushing and Morell are excellent.

      Delete
  2. No way I never knew they weren't back so far as the 30's!
    Nice to see my great uncle wolf Oli Reed getting a mention.
    I do love the Quatermass films. The DEvil Rides Out was a recent watch and really enjoyed that.
    A few I haven't seen, The Plague Of Zombies sounds good and I do fancy giving that Captain Kronos a go and I've always fancied Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
    I really want to watch The Hound Of The Baskervilles again.
    Great read sir Jay

    PS I don't seem to get notifications from replies on here Jay, hence why I sometimes put them in the wordpress reader. Not sure why.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought you might like the wolfman one!

      I've had some strange comment issues lately. At one point I kept getting two notifications for every comment (maybe I was getting your one as well! ). I don't know what's causing that.

      Captain Kronos is on Youtube at the moment if you want to check it out..

      Delete
  3. A great list!
    Some I've seen.
    Some I have not.
    The Curse of the Werewolf and The Plague of the Zombies are now on my watch list!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fabulous list, love the mention of Dear John, as a ellow Brit brought up in that time, it would have annoyed me not remembering this! Love you to do this list with Amicus films, when (and if) the mood takes you! Thanks for joining our blogathon from Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did consider an Amicus one. Maybe next time ...

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    2. An Amicus list would be great!

      Delete
  5. Great list. Nice to see Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos getting some love!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's tough to pick from the later films but I wanted something to represent their 1970s output. I also seriously considered Hands of the Ripper, which I think is one of their best of the '70s.

      Delete
  6. Stellar list! I don't envy your task of distilling the list down to 12 essential films, but you did a wonderful job. Many of my favorites, including Curse of Frankenstein and Quatermass and the Pit are here. Thanks again for joining the blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was my pleasure. Thanks for hosting.

      Delete
  7. Great choices, Jay. You know how much I love Quatermass And The Pit, so I'm delighted that you included that one. Two more that I like are The Gorgon and Hands Of The Ripper.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have another Hammer list in mind for the future, so you might see those two turn up. Hands of the Ripper is really interesting, I'd like to do something on that one when I can get round to it.

      Delete
  8. Great list! Happy to see Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, an underrated Hammer movie!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It seems like a lot of people like that one and Captain Kronos.


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  9. This list shows that I still have a love to see - I've only seen four of those films! I'm learning to like Hammer films more and more through all the posts in the blogathon.
    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great to hear it, Lê. I hope you discover some new favourites.

      Delete

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