Hammer Films

Stolen Face (Terence Fisher/Hammer, 1952)

In Britain during the 1950s and 60s Hammer Film Studios became synonymous with horror movies, though their output was a lot more varied than that including even the odd pirate adventure for instance. The company was originally set up as part of Exclusive Films in 1934, which distributed low budget movies including those made under the Hammer name. Exclusive dabbled briefly in film production before the onset of the war.

It renewed these activities in the late 1940s under a variety of banners, with ‘Hammer Film Productions’ being officially registered in 1949. Initially focusing on low budget adaptations of BBC radio series, in the 1950s they had some success producing a string of thrillers for the lower half of American double features, which usually mandated that a Hollywood actor appear as the lead even though filming was always undertaken in the UK. Along with their steady diet of comedies and radio adaptations (and then film versions of TV material too), these B-movie thrillers, produced economically on a 6-week schedule, are often highly entertaining and were a proving ground for many of the writers, directors, actors and technicians that the company would come to rely on in the heyday in the late 1950s as the producers of Gothic horrors starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Paranoiac (Freddie Francis/Hammer, 1963)

Indeed Hammer came to be known for the family feel and look to their films – not just because of its reliance on stars like Lee and Cushing but also a variety of in-house talents like producer Anthony Hinds (who wrote as ‘John Elder’), writer-director John Gilling,  writer-producer Jimmy Sangster, directors Terence Fisher (both of which I have dedicated individual pages, linked below) and Freddie Francis as well as composer James Bernard, Art Director Bernard Robinson, cameraman Jack Asher and a host of other creative men and women. ‘In house’ also has a specific meaning when discussing Hammer’s output since in the 50s and 60s rather than rent space at film studios, they created their own premises by renting a succession of large country mansions and shooting all their films inside them and on the adjacent grounds. The most famous of these was ‘Down Place’, which having been initially leased in 1951 in a somewhat dilapidated state, was later largely rebuilt and renamed ‘Bray Studios’ – it was to remain their home until 1966.

Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011)

The British writer-producer-director Jimmy Sangster (born James Henry Kinmel Sangster) is certainly best remembered for his long association with the Hammer Film Studios, where he first had a long career as an assistant director before moving on to be on of their most prolific writers – he is probably best known for his scripts for their many horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1957). However I am choosing to highlight his work in this blog because he was in fact much more interested in the mystery and thriller genre and most of his output can be described as suspense stories focusing on twists and turns rather than tales of horror or the supernatural.

I have added a dedicated section for Sangster and will be adding ones for directors Terence Fisher and Val Guest shortly.

Hell is a City (Val Guest/Hammer, 1960)

While their horror output is well represented on-line and in print, their thrillers, from their Noir-inflected 50s thrillers to the Psycho-inspired psychological suspense yarns of the 1960s, are the one I shall concentrate on here. Below is an index of many of the mystery films (some borderline SF/horror) that the company made, with links to my reviews added as they appear on this blog (with variant US titles added after an oblique where relevant: e.g. The Last Page / [US title] Man Bait)

Further reading …
Virtually all of the later Hammer thrillers from the 60s and early 70s are available on DVD, and a large chunk of the 1950s titles are too though sometimes under their US release titles, as in the case of those released under the ‘Hammer noir’ banner by the VCI label a few years ago.  Those interested in the history of the studio and the large quantity of films they produced will find a lot of fascinating material available online and in print, including the following:

Websites:

Bibliography

  • A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema by David Pirie (2007)
  • English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby (2010) [hard to find but a new edition is mooted]
  • Hammer Films – The Unsung Heroes: The Team Behind the Legend by Wayne Kramer (2010)
  • Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years by Wayne Kramer (2008)
  • The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes (2007)

17 Responses to Hammer Films

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