The History and Influence of Hammer Films

The son of James Carreras – Enrique – formed a distribution company in partnership with Will Hinds in 1935. The company was called Exclusive Films and during the 1940’s it produced the occasional few films based on radio characters such as Dick Barton. The company was very much a family run affair, and in 1947 its production activities were rationalised and a new company, Hammer films, was set up.

The name came from the stage name of Exclusive’s co-owner Will Hinds, who was known as Will Hammer in the theatre. James Carreras became the managing director; Anthony Hinds (Will Hinds’ son) became a producer, and Michael, another son of James Carreras, became his assistant. The production company came about at a bad time for film in Britain, with the industry falling into recession as films were not making profit. Hammer though, survived, thanks largely to James Carreras’ idea that if a film would not make profit then it should not be made at all. With ruthless cost-cutting and a determination to treat films as commercial products rather than simply expressionist art, Hammer was able to maintain itself.

Hammer Horror history, hound of the baskervilles,

Hammer is remembered today for its horror films, which is to be expected since the genre produced their most iconic films and characters, but is did start out making dramas and comedies, and also period-action films. Horror movies didn’t even register as half their output. As a matter of fact, only 1/8th of Hammer films were horror, and one of their most famous and appreciated films was the comedy On The Buses. So why is Hammer so synonymous with the horror film, and more importantly, such gothic horror characters like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

“I’ve always acknowledged my debt to Hammer. I’ve always said I’m very grateful to them. They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful.”Christopher Lee

It links back to James Carreras’ idea that a film should only go into production if it is guaranteed to make money. In the 1930’s, the horror genre started to crop up in the USA, and soon became a very marketable and profitable commodity. The horror genre at this time hadn’t appeared in Britain, and there was no indication that anyone was too bothered about it. Twenty years later, in 1954, Hammer Films was struggling and times were bad with the company’s future depending heavily on the box-office of their 1954 output. One of the films produced during this time, was the The Quatermass Xperiment (1954) and it did surprisingly well. The film was a mix of science fiction and horror, and was produced largely due to the success of the television show it was based on – Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment. Additionally, horror was beginning to be a more marketable genre in Britain with the rise of horror comics. Many of these comics were subsequently banned, after they were deemed unsuitable for any audience, and this created a stir with attention drawn to this new type of entertainment. The idea was simple: try to scare an audience for pleasure. With the political intervention barring people from horror products, demand grew. However, not only did Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment offer an outlet for this growing demand, it also utilised the new rating of ‘X’ in its title. This new certificate was for films aimed only at an adult audience.

hammer horror films, history, influence, blood on satan's claw,

Hammer’s influence: Blood on Saturn’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1970, Tigon British Film Productions)

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James Carreras then did his own market research to find out why the film was such a success, asking cinema managers whether it was the sci-fi elements, or the horror elements that were getting people into the cinema. The response was totally in favour of the horror aspect, which sent Carreras off to quickly create more ideas, and films in the horror genre. What followed was a spin off X – The Unknown (Leslie Norman, 1956) and a sequel Quatermass 2 (V. Guest, 1957). While Hammer didn’t totally discard other genres to produce horror films only, their horror output was their most marketable and profitable genre. Such was the money acquired from these films, Hammer stopped producing comedies soon after The Quatermass Xperiment’s success. It should also be noted that during this time television was growing more popular so using a notable television show theme was an iconic reminder that brought people back into cinemas.

It is also worth noting that Hammer Films thrived on the bad publicity it got from certain sectors claiming their horror films were not suitable to be seen, citing the horror and violence as inappropriate. “It doesn’t really concern us at all. We’re purely a commercial company, we turn out films we think are fairy tales in a way and we don’t think they offend anybody. We’ve never known anyone rush out after seeing a Dracula and help himself to a pint of blood, or rush off to do a transplant because they’ve seen Professor Frankenstein doing one,” said a member of The Quatermass Xperiment crew. This links with the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Also, the idea of life imitating art is raised which has become a prominent media angle in the 1990’s. Films such as Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone) and Scream (Wes Craven) have been targeted as causes of high school shootings (eg. Columbine High School) and rape (a woman was raped by a man wearing a mask featured in Scream). Like these films in the nineties, Hammer Horror were able to gain a cult following because of the media distaste, with people wanting more, not less. In many respects cinemagoers were trying to revolt against the higher powers. In the 1950’s it was likely the revolt was based on class status. Therefore, it could be seen that Hammer horror was a precursor, at least as far as cinema’s involvement, to the decline of a class system in Britain.

We have to look back at Hammer Films history to see how they could make so many films, in small stretches of time and with so little money. After all, it wasn’t over-night that The Quatermass Xperiment’s success transformed Hammer into a production company churning out box-office successes month after month. What did happen however was more interest came from the USA and while Hammer continued to produce various genre films, it was their horror output that was the most successful both in Britain, and what would soon become a success in the USA. This is one of the major reasons why Hammer is remembered for horror rather than anything else. While their horror films were attractive to audiences, they weren’t always of a very high quality in terms of the way in which they were acted, scripted and directed. Additionally, the critics hardly ever praised Hammer horror films – partly due to their exploitative violence, but mainly due to them lacking artistic merit. Therefore, other Hammer films, produced under different genres also fell pray to low quality and poor critical appraisal.

One of the major costs of film production was rental studio space, but Hammer came to the solution of buying a large country house, converting it into a studio and creating scripts to work around the décor and location of the house so that it could be re-used, and wouldn’t require constant changes in production design or locale. “The actual cost of buying such a house compared favourably with the studio rentals asked, and with the right story material, the décor of the house could actually provide the sets for the film…”, said The Quatermass Xperiment crew member. There were of course limitations with using a real country house to make films, like for instance, it encouraged the use of 35mm wide angle lenses and the avoidance of panning and tracking shots. Such were these limitations that long takes, with very little camera movement, became prominent parts of Hammer Films’ mise-en-scene. But as other production companies used mobile sets, moving from location to location, the country house idea proved cost effective. For example, Outlook Films, using mobile sets, made Blue Scar (Jill Craigie 1950) for £75,000, while Hammer made a couple of movies at the same time for considerably less. With the money they were saving they were able to maintain a stronger foot hole in British cinema by being able to make more films more quickly than their competitors. In making the films on a smaller budget they didn’t have to rely on every one being a success as 1 or 2 profitable movies was enough to recuperate expenses, and enough to make further films. It should also be noted that Hammer utilised the services of the same actors playing either the same or very similar roles. This allowed them to keep costs down by buying actors for a set amount of movies, and it also created audience anticipation and a cult following of the actors involved. Christopher Lee as Count Dracula regularly appeared and this not only gave Hammer an angle to promote the film (star status), it also gave their output a solid foot hole in British cinema because people started going to see the films because an actor they were familiar with was involved. This did not just work in Britain but internationally as well, and it could be argued that Hammer played a key role in the emergence of the ‘star persona’.

Hammer Horror and everyone’s favourite vampire Dracula:
The UK’s Hammer Studios, as they did with Frankenstein (see below) and Mummy sequels in the 50s, reinvigorated the Bram Stoker Dracula novel in a collection of low-budget films by employing garish, sensual colors and bloody reds – and more overt, suggestive sexuality and graphic violence. The British production company remained faithful to the genre’s material (the classics from Universal Studios) in tightly-produced, spectacular Technicolor sequels featuring a seductive, alluring and virile vampire. Talented director Terence Fisher (with Christopher Lee in one of his best appearances as the reclusive Count Dracula and Peter Cushing in a cat-and-mouse game as arch nemesis vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing) created the classic Horror of Dracula (1958, UK) (aka Dracula) – the first of the Hammer horror films about Dracula. Following its success, Hammer Studios produced more Dracula films with the same characters until the mid-70s (a total of nine films from 1958 to 1974). [Note: Christopher Lee eventually played Dracula in seven of the nine of Hammer’s Dracula films from 1958 to 1973]:

* Brides of Dracula (1960), d. Terence Fisher, a second Hammer ‘Dracula’ film, but w/o Christopher Lee and the “Dracula” character; David Peel starred as a blond vampire disciple named Baron Meinster in an all girls school, and Cushing returning as Van Helsing
* Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), the third Hammer film, the first official sequel to the original Hammer film, with Christopher Lee reprising his role as the caped vampire and Andrew Keir as the vampire hunter
* Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), the fourth Hammer film, Christopher Lee’s third film in the Hammer series as the blood-sucking vampire, directed by Freddie Francis
Courtesy of Film Site

However, Carreras was not content to pander to just the needs of Britain, he wanted to expand and get his product seen all around the world. The Quatermass Xperiment did surprisingly well in the USA, which put Hammer into the international limelight. From this, movie deals quickly became available with Carreras signing contracts with Universal, Columbia and United Artists. While Hammer continued to make varied genre films, they ceased making comedies as they were very difficult to sell abroad. Carreras’ method of selling films for the American market was to present an impression of what was needed to get audiences into cinema’s around the world. One of the main reasons why Hammer comedies did not work was because British humour was very different to American humour, which is reflected in the films produced then, and even now.

Hammer horror films maintained a British sensibility and generic features that separated them from the American competition. Such things as the exploitation of Technicolour via the lavishly coloured country house sets; the abrupt endings, very simple narratives; no flashbacks or dream sequences; attention to detail through the use of lingering shots of certain aspects of the mise-en-scene for emphasis; and all the films were there to exploit – exploitation of blood, death and the macabre (things people hadn’t seen before), all clearly delineated in trailers, posters and of course in the films themselves. While they didn’t show a realist representation of Britain, the films did analogise a time of uncertainty. They showed a changing Britain (the critical backlash, the change in rating with the introduction of the ‘X’ rating), and also the depiction of good and evil, which had become a major part in British society with the uncertainty after the second world war, and the threat of nuclear weapons. Also, the changing of Britain’s youth as teens rebelled against authority, (the ‘horror is bad’ message in the media only fuelled a hunger for more).

devil rides out, hammer horror, film,

In conclusion, looking at Hammer Films we see that Carreras and his team not only introduced a new genre to British film culture; and not only made that genre popular and profitable, but they also tapped into the American market with their fantasy tales. Not only this, Carreras’ shrewd selling tactics enabled Hammer to sell more films in America than anyone else, expanding British cinema abroad. To say Hammer revolutionised the British film industry is debatable, but what it did do is produce films that not only stand the test of time today, but also leave a legacy and footprint in the history of British film.

Discover More:
Top 10 British Horror Films of All Time

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Richard Reply

    Great blog, Dan. I’ve been writing a little about certain Hammer movies myself for Halloween. It should be interesting to see what they deliver in the years to come, now they’re producing movies again.

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