Bela Lugosi isn’t Dracula, but Christopher Lee is, as Hammer Horror is born.
In late 1934, a British comedian named William Hinds started a film company, Hammer Productions Ltd., named in honor of Will Hammer, the stage name which had in turn been derived from the London neighborhood in which Hinds lived: Hammersmith. In 1935, Hinds formed Exclusive Films in conjunction with Spanish immigrant and theater owner Enrique Carreras. Under the partnership, Hammer produced films, which would then be distributed under the Exclusive banner.
Their highest-profile production, thanks to the inclusion in the cast of Dracula star Bela Lugosi, was 1936’s The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, released in the United States as The Phantom Ship. It’s based on the legend of the Mary Celeste, a ship that was found abandoned, drifting off the shore of the Azores Islands near Portugal. Its lifeboat was missing, along with all of the crew, but investigators could find no reason for the ship to have been abandoned. It was still seaworthy and under sail, and the last entry in the captain’s log, from ten days earlier, reported all was well. None of its cargo was stolen or disturbed in any way. And none of the vanished crew ever appeared again. Almost from the start, reports of the mystery were filled with inaccuracies, claiming that salvage teams found recently prepared dinners, still warm, when they boarded the derelict ship. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote a fictional account of a violent clash among the crew, entitled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” a story that was subsequently reported as fact by many news outlets. Hammer and first-time director Denison Clift chose one of the many legends regarding what happened to the crew: murder.
It’s not a particularly good film unless you are really into watching Bela wear a pea coat, but to be fair, he looks really cool in that pea coat. The film marked Hammer’s earliest foray, albeit somewhat timidly, into the genre for which they would later become famous: horror. At that time, however, like any production house, Hammer produced films from a variety of popular genres. After World War II, the British film industry crashed, and little Hammer declared bankruptcy. But like Dracula, it was revived by Anthony Hinds and James Carreras, the sons of the company’s founders Under its new leaders, Hammer concentrated on cheap genre pictures, mostly crime and thrillers.
In the middle of the 1950s, Hammer entered into a partnership with American distributor Associated Artists Productions (AAP) in hopes of boosting sales of their films in the US. AAP was sitting on a script written by two rookie filmmakers, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who wanted a chance to direct their screenplay. AAP was hesitant to spend money on two men with no real filmmaking skills. Instead, they offered the script to Hammer. Rosenberg and Subotsky went on to establish Amicus Pictures, the primary competition for Hammer during the 1960s and ’70s. Hammer went on to produce the script they’d received. After substantial rewrites by Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster to avoid a lawsuit from Universal and patch up what everyone regarded as rather a dodgy script, the film finally went into production under the title The Curse of Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s original idea for Frankenstein was conceived one stormy night during the “year without a summer,” when she, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the rascal-poet Lord Byron were holed up in a castle swapping ghost stories. Also present was Byron’s traveling companion and personal physician, John Polidori. The group decided to have a competition to see who could write the best scary story. Percy lost interest and didn’t write anything. John Polidori wrote something Mary described as “a terrible idea about a skull-headed lady.”
Lord Byron started a story about a young man who becomes entranced by a nobleman and later is made to promise that he won’t tell anyone when the older man dies. But Byron, being Byron, lost interest as well, though his pal Polidori took the fragment and ran with it, favoring it over his original idea about the skull lady. The result was a story titled The Vampyre, and the nobleman in it was based on Lord Byron himself. Despite Mary’s dismissal of Polidori’s initial story, he would emerge from that night a winner. In its day, The Vampyre and its central character, Lord Ruthven, were very popular — though sadly this never resulted in a movie where Lord Ruthven fights Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps because of the monster’s unkind review of Ruthven’s skull lady story. Alas, poor Polidori’s victory was bittersweet, as for decades, and even still today, it was common for people to attribute The Vampyre to Lord Byron.
And yes — Mary, drawing upon her experience traveling through Germany, that night came up with the story that became Frankenstein.
It was a gamble to make a Frankenstein movie in the late 1950s, what with Karloff’s version of the monster being a…well…universal icon, and with interest in horror at an all-time low. Hammer had to figure out a way to do something just as good but different, something that would at once hearken back to yet be different from its legendary predecessor. They assigned house director Terence Fisher to the project and furnished him with television star Peter Cushing to portray Frankenstein. They decided to shoot the film in color, as opposed to their usual cost-saving black and white.
Universal was none too happy about someone making a new Frankenstein film. Although they didn’t create the character, they reasonably argued that when the average moviegoer heard the name Frankenstein, they didn’t think of Mary Shelley’s novel; they thought of the Universal movie. Hammer could have argued back that nothing they were going to do could have been any worse than some of those Frankenstein sequels Universal pumped out during the 1940s — but that would have been rude. Universal threatened to sue Hammer if their monster came out looking anything remotely like the Karloff Monster, so Hammer went about stitching together, if you will, an entirely new look for Frankenstein’s frightening creation.
If the Karloff film taught filmmakers anything, it was that whoever plays the Monster will be the focal point of attention, no matter how hard a film insists that Dr. Frankenstein is the star. Hammer had a long series of auditions for a variety of big, hulking men before finally deciding on a tall, lanky actor named Christopher Lee. Lee had a decently long filmography under his belt, but most were small parts in small films, so he was more or less an unknown at the time. So an unknown director directing two seasoned but obscure actors in a film based on a character that had more or less been made into a parody by the time Universal was finished with it, all at a time when interest in old Gothic horror was at an all-time low in favor of whiz-bang science fiction adventures. No problem.
Christopher Lee’s monster, while never becoming the icon that Karloff’s was, looked hideous and creepy because, for the most part, it looked so real — like a horrid, pallid man who had been created out of sundry body parts from other corpses. His makeup and outfit were truly ghoulish and disturbing…that black coat with the ragged skin and the misty eye. The scenes of Lee’s monster ambling through a bleak, yellow-brown fall forests is incredibly creepy, and the scene in which Frankenstein sidekick Paul (if you are going to watch Hammer films, get ready for a lot of Pauls) takes aim and blows off a goodly portion of the monster’s head remains shocking. Peter Cushing shines as the amoral but not unsympathetic doctor. At the center of the film is Frankenstein’s mania regarding research. As one character points out in the film, minutes before being pushed to his death by Frankenstein so the mad doctor can have a fresh genius brain, some scientists become obsessed with research then quickly growing bored with the outcome.
In the original novel, Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation comes from a place of revulsion. His thrill at “tampering in God’s domain” is replaced by horror when he beholds his twisted monster. He then irresponsibly flees from the thing. Cushing’s Frankenstein is not motivated by horror, but by a singular focus. It is the chase, not the catch. His rejection of the creature isn’t so much a rejection as it is simply a filing away. Experiment done, what’s next? He plays the doctor not as a mad scientist who turns remorseful and attempts to atone for his transgression, but instead as a man so engrossed by his research that he completely lacks any concept of the notion of good or evil. He doesn’t willingly violate taboos; he simply doesn’t comprehend that they exist. He is utterly amoral, but not completely evil.
When the film was released in May of 1957, Hammer’s gamble paid off. Audiences went wild for the film’s audacious mixture of period piece horror, vivid Eastmancolor, heaving bosoms (Hazel Court’s, not Peter Cushing’s), and gore. It outraged critics and censors, who decried “The uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr. Jimmy Sangster” (Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, by Deborah Del Vecchio and Tom Johnson). It revived the Gothic horror movie, paving the way for such coming innovators as Mario Bava and Roger Corman with his Poe films starring Vincent Price (and occasionally Ray Milland). It launched the careers of both Lee and Cushing into the stratosphere, though it would be several more movies before Christopher was allowed to use that theatrical, booming voice for more than a few lines. The success of Curse of Frankenstein also convinced Hammer to try their hand at reinventing a couple more classic “Universal monsters.” And once that started, everything else at the company was put on hold. From that moment on, Hammer was the House of Horror.
Show Me the Way to Castle Dracula
Alongside Frankenstein, the monster that most defined Hammer’s glory days was Dracula. Hot on the heels of The Curse of Frankenstein‘s success, Hammer made The Horror of Dracula (1958), using the same writer (Sangster), director (Fisher), and stars (Cushing and Lee). Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the count, based as fast and loose on the book as every other cinematic adaptation, has an air of sophistication about him, but that regal air is quick to dissolve as Dracula acts on his more animalistic impulses. He is no gentleman, no debonair aristocrat. He does not woo women; he takes them. He does not dazzle salon audiences with his wit and intelligence. He is a beast, a stalker, a predator without remorse or pity. He is a vampire who isn’t a man or a monster so much as he is a barely contained forced that overpowers anything with which it comes into contact. He is strong, towering, and above all, menacing. When this Dracula looks at you, he sees nothing but food. When this Dracula shows up, you believe with every inch of your soul that’s he going to put the serious hurt on you.
The Horror of Dracula was as massive a hit as The Curse of Frankenstein, and the once-tiny (still cash-strapped) production house was suddenly a global phenomenon. For the next decade, Hammer produced almost nothing but Gothic horror (with a few pirate movies thrown in here and there) and enjoyed immense success. Dracula and Frankenstein were the company’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the sequel to The Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula (1960, Terence Fisher) finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and it instead focuses on a new bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe and fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect.
Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of Christopher Lee and overestimated Lee’s willingness to appear again as Dracula. Lee didn’t want to be typecast (good luck with that), and being a bit pompous (I write with love), he was sour about how many liberties had been taken with Bram Stoker’s story. Hammer’s version contains way less diary reading and writing. More importantly, Hammer underestimated the audience’s desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name “Dracula” in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is an entertaining film, it wasn’t what audiences — or distributors — were looking for. When Hammer dipped its toe back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula was back in the picture (if only briefly), and that he was played once again by Christopher Lee.
Even then, Hammer liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic, if not always financial, success. Kiss of the Vampire (1963, Don Sharp) is wonderful, one of the best films from Hammer’s golden era. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of Christopher Lee complaining to the press about Dracula movies, which he did with increasing frequency. Alas, while Lee’s Dracula returned time and again to the franchise “under protest,” the same wasn’t true of Van Helsing. Peter Cushing was much more agreeable to whatever role Hammer tossed his way, but the Frankenstein series was as big a juggernaut for the studio as Dracula, and that franchise rested entirely on the slim, capable shoulders of Peter Cushing, allowing him no time for vampire hunting. Cushing wouldn’t whip out his vampire killing kit again until the 1970s, and he wouldn’t assume the name Van Helsing again until 1972.
- English Gothic. Rigby, Jonathan. 2015, Signum.
- Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography. Johnson, Tom and Del Vecchio, Deborah. 1996, McFarland & Company.
- House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story. Hunter, Jack. 2000, Creation Books.