Hammer’s power to shock has diminished over the years, and this is no surprise. An ever-increasing permissiveness and escalating developments in special effects mean that films so terrifying that they threatened the security of your very soul back in 1956, now make an ideal afternoon viewing companion to a pot of tea and a hot buttered crumpet. Horror movies have spent each of the last 100 years trying to outdo a previously existing outrage, so the limitations of 1960s special effects teams are often made laughable by the sophistication and realism of 21st century blood-letting.
This is not to say that there aren’t still a few genuinely nasty surprises within Hammer’s back-catalogue. Hammer were constantly trying to push the boat out, shock-wise and were no strangers to a chiding telegram from the censors’ office. This selection proves that despite their comforting familiarity, there are still a few shards of broken glass hidden within the Hammer chocolate selection box.
Cloaked in shadows as he is, announced by the trademark cymbal-clap of a James Bernard theme, his footsteps silenced as he glides down the staircase, Christopher Lee’s Dracula is actually an impeccable host and clearly a gentleman. “My name is Dracula and I welcome you to my house,” he announces before volunteering to carry Jonathan Harker’s bags to his room himself. “I must apologise for not being here to greet you personally but I trust you’ve found everything you needed?” Literally, couldn’t be nicer.
Their chat is perfunctory and amiable. Dracula is perfectly charming and is good enough to complement Harker upon the loveliness of his fiancé’s photograph. Would that many of the five-star hotels in which I have stayed had had such considerate hosts – though Dracula’s habit of locking his guests in their room might have aroused suspicion.
That is our last sight of Dracula: peerless host and valet. The next evening, just as the negligee-clad Valerie Gaunt manages to trick Harker into some neck-nibbling, Dracula makes one of the most shocking reappearances in cinema. A cat-like rasp behind them and suddenly Dracula’s face fills the screen; only now his fangs are bared, his chin is dripping with fresh blood and his eyes are reddened and wild.
Dracula rips the vampire woman away from Harker and hurls her to the floor When Harker attempts to attack him, Dracula grabs him by the throat and chokes him; his face twisted into a feral, savage snarl. From his sudden arrival, to his departure, carrying his vampire mistress away with him, less than a minute elapses. It is still breathtaking in 2014. In 1958, it’s possible that no one had ever seen anything so frightening at the movies before in their entire lives.
The Nanny (1965)
A rare contemporary horror, shot in “Kitchen Sink” black & white by the fine director Seth Holt, and starring the legendary Bette Davis as the nursemaid in question, The Nanny is a Hammer film of the finest pedigree, yet it has been sadly overlooked. It is a complex dissection of the semi-infantilised life of the upper-middle classes in the 1960s and as such it bears comparison with Polanski’s Repulsion and Joseph Losey’s The Servant. The astonishing performance of young William Dix also puts it into the estimable “Creepy Kid” category alongside Village of The Damned and The Innocents.
Rather than resorting to any 1990s-style, third-act kitchen knife antics, The Nanny’s dread is slowly and carefully built. Naughty little Joey is returned to his posh family, having spent a year in an institution for drowning his little sister in the bath. Though he is quite evidently “a wrong ‘un,” he has always maintained his innocence and has a very adversarial relationship with the family’s benevolent old nanny.
Joey’s father is a Queen’s Messenger and his mother is a heartbroken, spoon-fed wreck. While they are both away, Joey’s poorly aunt Penelope comes over to look after him and soon deduces that Nanny was responsible all along. Having confronted her, Penelope succumbs to a heart attack. Nanny’s face gives a little victory twitch, and rather than fetch her heart-pills, Nanny just watches as Penelope drags herself towards the bed, silently clutching the air and gasping for breath for an agonisingly long period. Nanny follows dutifully, picking up her slippers, before making Penelope comfortable on the bed and recounting her tragic tale. Joey’s aunt is dead long before Nanny has finished explaining herself.
The Plague of The Zombies (1966)
The current vogue for all things ‘Zombie’ is regularly traced back to George A Romero’s seminal Night of The Living Dead (1968). Step back a few years and you’ll find one of Romero’s main inspirations, and Hammer’s only sojourn into zombie territory. Shot on the same set as The Reptile with (mostly) the same cast, and shown as part of a double-bill with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Plague of The Zombies has emerged as one of the best and most influential films Hammer ever made.
The image of a rictus-grinning, white eyed zombie dropping a woman’s body outside a tin mine was so horrifying to my young eyes that I had to staple the pages of my first Horror Movie book together so I never saw it again. However, the film’s most infamous scare takes place later in the film. Cornish GP, Dr Peter Tompson, is investigating the death of his wife, Alice with his esteemed friend, Sir James Forbes. Visiting her grave in the dead of night, the pair are astonished to see Alice decompose in her coffin, before waking up and climbing out of her grave.
Sir James steps back onto a spade, which he picks up and uses to cut off Alice’s head – Hammer had wanted this to be a three-strike decapitation , but the BBFC had insisted on a single blow, “less the audience…gag.” Alice’s widower, Peter stumbles back in horror and passes out. He wakes up to find himself still in the green-hued, mist cloaked graveyard. Before his eyes, fingers begin to claw up through the earth; grey faces press themselves up through the dirt. Hands slowly grab claw-like the ridges of their own tombstones and the bodies pull themselves up out of their graves.
As Peter watches, frozen to the spot, the soil-covered zombies begin shuffling their way towards him. Little does Peter realise that another zombie is approaching him from behind, his mouldy fingers stretched out towards his neck.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
One of the bleakest films ever made by the studio, their fifth Frankenstein film reflected the increasing cynicism of the late 1960s. Starting with a beheading-by-scythe and featuring some censor-baiting, gruesome brain surgery and a gratuitous rape scene (insisted upon from on high, to the disgust of stars and director alike), this is a tale of deals made with the devil, from which no one steps away unscathed.
Hammer glamour-girl Veronica Carlson and future Young Winston Simon Ward, play young lovers blackmailed into providing lodgings and a space to work for Baron Frankenstein. Peter Cushing’s progressive surgeon, at once naïve and blinded by ambition, is by this point an utterly remorseless killer: “Scientist, Surgeon, Madman, Murderer!” as voice-over man describes him in the trailer. By contrast, his “monster” this time, is a sweet innocent played by Freddie Jones, whose wife doesn’t recognise him in the new body that Frankenstein has given him.
In a sequence that must have had Hitchcock reaching for a biro and a memo-pad, Veronica Carlson returns home with a friend just as a mains pipe bursts, sending a geyser of water up out of the flower bed. To her horror, the water loosens a human arm, which flaps about in the water-shower, waving out of the earth and alerting the world to another of The Baron’s recently disposed bodies.
Hands of The Ripper (1971)
The speed at which the Hollywood gravy-train disappeared back across the Atlantic after the 1960s, taking its money and distribution deals with it, took everyone in the UK by surprise; Hammer especially. With audiences dwindling, and increasingly meagre budgets to use in their own defence, Hammer floundered desperately for new ways to attract a new generation into their clutches. Lesbian vampires seemed (briefly) to be the solution, as was the misguided ‘Present-Day Dracula’ idea. Frankenstein even received a prototypical, Casino Royale-style reboot with The Horror of Frankenstein, to disastrous effect.
Amongst the desperate T&A cheapies of early 1970s Hammer, a few jewels still shone. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is a cult favourite and Twins of Evil is an underrated 90 minutes of vintage kitch. A pair of Victorian-set horrors stood out especially: the ingenious Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and the complex, Freudian Hands of The Ripper. In the latter, Jack The Ripper’s daughter (Angharad Rees), unaware of her true parentage, nonetheless gives cold comfort to the eugenics-crowd by unconsciously becoming a crazed murderer whenever she is kissed.
Eric Porter plays the psychologist obsessed with the unlocking of this girl’s inner workings – the climax set in the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s is one of the best in Hammer’s CV. Anna discharges herself from his care and finds herself in the company of Long Liz, a whore with a heart o’ gold, who takes Anna under her wing. Unaware of Anna’s condition, she plants a smacker on Anna’s cheek, whereupon Anna grabs a handful of hat-pins and stabs them through Liz’s hand and into her face and eyes, in one of the most savage scenes of Hammer horror ever filmed.
The Woman in Black (2012)
Ironically, in their heyday, Hammer never really went in for ghost stories. They made up for it in 2012 with this roaring return to box-office form. Ostensibly the movie version of a ghost-train, The Woman in Black stars Daniel Radcliffe as a widowed lawyer, persecuted by the titular spectre in Eel Marsh House; a house so haunted that even seasoned investigators Scooby-Doo and his pals would have been left permanently traumatised by its shenanigans.
The timing of The Woman in Black’s release couldn’t have been better. Not only was it Radcliffe’s first movie after hanging up Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, but it arrived at a time when audiences had tired of the teen-disembowelment savagery of ‘Torture-Porn’ and embraced the lurking supernatural tension of films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister. The Woman in Black shares their use of ratcheted suspense and coronary-inducing “Boo!” moments, but presents them wrapped in the trappings of lush Victorian period design.
The film boasts a set-list of brilliantly-staged shocks – the immolation of a teenage girl, and the eye peeping through the zoetrope being good examples. The biggest collective scream/jump/gasp moment in the packed cinemas found Radcliffe surrounded by a selection of some of the creepiest Victorian nursery paraphernalia on film – no scuffed, nightmarishly benign porcelain harlequin was too skin-crawlingly discomforting for director James Watkins. Aware that there is a ‘presence’ in the house, Radcliffe holds aloft his candle just in time to see the lights turning themselves off, sending darkness down the corridor towards him. He waits for a moment for whatever will come through the door, but The Woman in Black is already in the room with him! Looking up from the shadows, opening her mouth and letting out an ear-piercing, unholy scream, she flies across the room towards Radcliffe… A cheap and manipulative scare, maybe? But is that an apple juice stain that’s suddenly appeared on the crotch of your trousers? No. No it is not.