Hammer Films are renowned for their brand of bright and colorful horror films, mainly produced between the mid-1950s and 1970s. Releasing classic re-imaginations of Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, and Werewolf films, it was during this time that Hammer Film established the basis of what would become the style most closely associated with their name. It would be an egregious overstatement to downplay the impact of Hammer’s non-horror repertoire, but it cannot be denied that these films play second fiddle in terms of popularity. This is the genius of David Huckvale’s new book, Hammer Films’ Psychological Thrillers, 1950-1972. Placing the lesser-known and studied work in center stage, Huckvale is able to analyze a different side of Hammer Films.
In his book, Huckvale pays close attention to a string of psychological thrillers produced under Hammer Productions between this twenty-year period (1950-72), which includes films like The Nanny, Taste of Fear, and Maniac (1963). Tracing the roots of Hammer’s run on the psychological thriller subgenre to the work of Henri-Georges Clouzot with his 1955 classic, Les Diaboliques—and further in four films of Alfred Hitchcock who Huckvale traces also to Clouzot’s seminal classic—the first two chapters are dedicated to developing a thematic and visual precipice that will be exploited in Hammer’s films. The remaining seventeen chapters are each dedicated to a specific film and theme that emerges from the film, the chapters corresponding in chronological order to the film’s releases. Chapters discuss the “Misogyny in Stolen Face,” “The Gothic in Taste of Fear,” and “Sex and the Dead in Paranoiac,” among others.
Huckvale’s strengths lie in his knowledge and research into Hammer. Using quotes, factoids, and his own close reading, he does a marvelous job at stringing together a coherent flow between the chapters, while still managing to allow the individual pieces a sense of individuality. Fans of Hammer, and noir alike, will have a great deal of information to dive into, as Huckvale plays both the historian and critic. By the book’s conclusion, there does begin to be a hint of repetition at play. This is no real fault of Huckvale, however, as the studio did not shy away from reusing sets, principle crew, and often even storylines, which causes some of the pieces to resemble each other. Huckvale combats this by choosing vastly different thematic approaches to each film. While there are a few chapters that divert themselves from the theme, Huckvale overall does a fine job at keeping task.
At just a hair over 200 pages, Hammer Films’ Psychological Thrillers, 1950-1972 is a real treat; a quick but thought provoking and engaging read. Importantly, while an understanding of the included films certainly helps, Huckvale is explicit enough in his descriptions that one need not be an expert to dive in.