Here’s a quick-and-dirty field guide to horror movies as you flip through late-night television this Halloween season: if there are more bright colors than seem contextually possible, and people make their escapes in darkest nights that look suspiciously like 4pm, odds are that you’re watching a Hammer flick.
Hammer, the legendary movie studio that churned out Gothic thrillers at a brisk clip for nearly two decades between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, has left behind an impressive catalog, liberally studded with some of B-cinema’s finest. It can be hard to know where to begin, but Nick and Genevieve are up to the challenge. By their cheesy-cinema powers combined, they’ve come up with a list of the top ten Hammer films you have to see.
1. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The rare Hammer film in which dialogue and characterization, rather than coincidence and bizarre compulsions to hang out in empty manor houses, drive the plot. Christopher Lee’s moldy monster only shows up for a few memorable scenes of Hammer’s first Frankenstein outing; the movie is largely about Frankenstein’s life before it starts to unravel under his obsession. Since the good doctor is played by Peter Cushing, that means he mostly gives his costars bedroom eyes, and occasionally takes breaks to collect brains. (That counts as restrained for Peter!) Even the monster is less bloodthirsty than in later adaptations – in this one, he mostly kills people Frankenstein shoves in front of him. However, the movie doesn’t suffer from lack of body count; in fact, it’s remarkably well-scripted and employs the minimum monsters on strings; its main special effect is a subtle air of dread, which has helped it age better than many of its cousins.
2. The Brides of Dracula (1960)
When dewy French schoolteacher Marianne is stranded at a country inn en route to her new post at a girls’ school, she accepts an invitation to overnight at the not-at-all suspicious manor of Baroness Meinster. One filmy-nightgown-walkabout later, she discovers that the young Baron, alive and well and kept shackled upstairs in full formal dress, is more than he seems. (He seems like an overgrown six-year-old, but he’s more because he’s actually a vampire, is how that works.) Thank goodness Van Helsing is passing through just in time to save Marianne from her girls’-school coworker, the bloodthirsty Baron, and her own lack of survival instinct. Though Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing makes his second high-cheekboned appearance in a vampire flick, this is a slightly disjointed outing in the series, with several varyingly-successful twists on its emerging vampire formula – including the dubious honor of being Dracula-free.
3. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Benicio Del Toro’s The Wolfman actually owes a lot more to this Hammer chiller, the only werewolf movie the studio made, than it does to the 1941 Universal classic it claimed to reimagine, including the scene of torch-carrying locals chasing the werewolf across the rooftops. Oliver Reed, who thankfully doesn’t share Del Toro’s mumble-mouth delivery, stars as Leon, the doomed son of a mute servant girl who was raped by a crazy, beast-like beggar. As if that’s not enough to send him to therapy, poor Leon also discovers he has a body hair problem and an appetite for sheep. What’s a young man to do when he keeps turning into a monster and terrorizing his small Spanish town? Hit the local tavern for some dirty dancing and naughty shadow puppetry, of course! Oh, and then take to the rooftops. What could possibly go wrong up there? Wildly uneven but enormously fun, The Curse of the Werewolf also features the coolest werewolf makeup since Lon Chaney, Jr.’s teased-out afro and muttonchops.
4. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
This is Christopher Lee’s second go-round as Dracula, and the one which solidified the image of him as a formally-dressed and silent seducer. In fact, this formula (minus some of the Catholicism that runs roughshod over this film’s second act) became the standard for subsequent Hammer Draculas. Everything you’ve come to recognize is here: the jerk squatters who think nothing of making themselves at home in a seemingly-masterless manor; the sultry redhead who’s prone to vampire bites; the virginal blonde who lacks the common sense not to let vampires in when they complain that it’s cold out; chase scenes in a “nighttime” forest bathed in afternoon light; and the last-minute accidental triumph over the Prince of Darkness. It also has a shockingly taciturn Dracula at its center – because Dracula’s scripted lines were reportedly so terrible that Lee refused to utter them. (Based on the rest of this script, he made the wise call.)
5. The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Two years before George Romero unleashed zombies on modern-day Pittsburgh, Hammer put its own rotting stamp on the shambling undead by setting them loose in…turn-of-the-century Cornwall? Well, points for trying, anyway. As villagers start mysteriously dropping like stones, the nefarious Squire Hamilton refuses to let the bodies be autopsied to find out what’s causing it. After all, why ruin perfectly good corpses when he can simply reanimate them with voodoo instead and turn them into free labor for his tin mine? Someone call the union! Though not one of Hammer’s best known films, it’s famous in film nerd circles for imagery that would go on to influence decades of zombie films to come. For one thing, it’s the first film ever to show the dead rising from their graves. No need to worry if you’re squeamish, though; these zombies are scary but not gross-face scary. Also, you kind of feel bad for them because cruel voodoo mine bosses aren’t big on overtime.
6. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
This film’s initial production was slated for 1963, but had to be postponed until public fear about Satanism had died down enough to enjoy a movie about it without being scared right into the service of the Devil. I’m not quite sure what they were worried about; not only does good triumph over evil, but Christopher Lee is playing a good guy, so it means the side of good is going to be super-well-informed. This thriller (ostensibly set in the ’30s but looking mightily of its time) presents Satanic cults as a bunch of nerds doing contact improvisation out in the fields of Salisbury, the Devil as a man with a goat mask on, and Satanic vessels as the kinds of guys who drive young ladies around in convertibles. The movie’s cheesier set pieces are redeemed, however, by the truly grueling sequence in which Lee’s Richleau and his three companions must fight off a baker’s dozen devilish monsters from within a protective circle, which singlehandedly elevates this outing to among Hammer’s best.
7. The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
Compared to Peter Cushing’s classic Frankenstein films, this alternate version of the same story is an overlooked gem. Well, gem may be too strong a word, but it’s definitely overlooked. It’s also sexier, nastier, gorier and loaded with heaps more dark humor than the Cushing films. Here, Victor Frankenstein is a spoiled young aristocrat living in the family castle, enjoying a “friends with benefits” relationship with the same housekeeper his deceased father did, and stitching together body parts in the basement to make a man. He’s also got a huge tub of hydrochloric acid for getting rid of any evidence of his body-snatching. Jeez, I hope nothing bad happens with that! Sci-fi buffs will enjoy seeing Doctor Who’s Kate O’Mara as the housekeeper who gets around and Star Wars’ David Prowse as the Monster. Also, keep an eye out for Veronica Carlson as the non-housekeeper love interest. Just the year before, she was in one of Cushing’s Frankenstein films as well, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Maybe she’s “friends with benefits” with the franchise.
8. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1970)
You know what a great idea would be? To retell the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, only instead of turning into a child-beating monster, Jekyll would turn into a hot and murderous lady who liked to wear halter tops all over Victorian England! That would be a completely great idea that wouldn’t backfire at all. Add some halfhearted production values, smell-the-fart acting, and lingering shots of Sister Hyde staring at and/or fondling her topless torso in the mirror, and you have one of Hammer’s most over-the-top and blatantly cheesecake offerings. Most notable for showing how Hammer had begun its slow decline from the home of classic horror to a faltering studio rushing to keep up with the schlock market, there’s still value in watching this one: it tackles gender issues almost by accident, but given the political climate in which it was released, it serves handily enough as a time capsule. Plus, you know, the cheesecake.
9. Vampire Circus (1972)
No vampire is complete without a title of nobility and an awesome puffy shirt, and the evil Count Mitterhaus has both–at least until he’s staked by an angry mob after preying on one townstot too many. Fifteen years later, the mysterious Circus of Nights appears from out of nowhere and sets up in town. Coincidence? It wouldn’t be much of a movie if it were! Turns out the circus is chock full of shapeshifting vampires out for revenge. These bloodsuckers don’t just turn into bats; they also become leopards, tigers and panthers. With this many vamps and wereanimals on the loose, it’s like a proto-Sookie Stackhouse novel! Extra points awarded for being completely unselfaware in its portrayal of little people as evil servants of darkness. As an added bonus, this film has a nerdtastic Doctor Who and Star Wars connection as well, with Lalla “Romana” Ward as a trapeze artist and, once again, David “Darth Vader” Prowse as the strong, silent type.
10. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)
Hammer’s attempt at starting a new franchise didn’t pan out, but it did result in probably the most fun horror-adventure film ever. Blond adonis Horst Janson stars as Kronos, who, along with his hunchbacked companion and a squandered Caroline Munro as some chick he picks up along the way (seriously!), fights the vampires bedeviling a small village. The vamps here are different from the usual fare. They don’t just suck your blood, they steal your youth for themselves, resulting in several disturbing scenes of little girls being turned into old hags in the blink of an eye. Other cool bits include a darkly funny scene in which Kronos tries to figure out which method of dispatch will kill these particular vampires, since different species of bloodsuckers have different weaknesses, by trying them all out on a single undead test subject; a vampire-slaying sword forged from a huge silver cross; and one of the most awkwardly filmed love scenes in modern cinema. You won’t know what Janson and Munro are doing in that barn, exactly, but you’ll become mighty familiar with soft-focus flashes of random, innocuous body parts.
All told, Hammer produced over 200 films in a variety of genres before they ceased operations in the 1980s. Recently, the studio rose from its grave to start production on a new batch of films, including the just released Let Me In, the unnecessary but surprisingly-well-reviewed remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In, and the forthcoming The Woman in Black, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe.
Still, it’s the studio’s golden age of Gothic for which it’s most remembered, and these ten examples of prime Hammer horror are the pinnacle of their output–at least according to our two experts of fine cinema cheese. To this day, the name Hammer remains synonymous with brilliantly entertaining, low-budget yet undeniably lavish horror films that still make for essential Halloween viewing. So when the sun goes down this October 31st, turn off the lights, ignore the neighborhood kids begging for candy while dressed up as the cast of The Jersey Shore, and treat yourself to an unforgettable film festival of cardboard castles and cotton cobwebs, villages with crazy made-up German names and cheap day-for-night cinematography, nightgown-clad ladies with heaving bosoms and seductive vampires in questionably stylish capes. Treat yourself to some Hammer horror.
Spread the word!