Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Successful UK movie production company (more properly Hammer Films) whose name became synonymous with horror, fantasy and action-adventure movies for over two decades. Hammer Productions was created in 1934 by William Hinds (pseudonym Will Hammer), who had formed the Exclusive movie-distribution company with cinema-owner Enrique Carreras. The first Hammer production was a comedy, The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935). It was followed by The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1936; vt Phantom Ship US), which featured imported US star Bela Lugosi as a crazed killer, and two more movies. Hammer was no longer listed as an active company by the outbreak of WWII. In 1947, however, when the ABC cinema circuit was looking for a company to supply supporting features, Hammer was reformed. Under the guidance of Enrique's son Sir James Carreras (and later his son Michael and William's son Anthony Hinds [1922-2013]) the company turned out numerous low-budget pictures, usually released through Exclusive and often adapted from established radio and tv plays. These included three features based on the BBC radio series Dick Barton (Dick Barton Special Agent [1948; vt Dick Barton Detective US], Dick Barton Strikes Back [1949] and Dick Barton at Bay [1950]), each starring Don Stannard as the investigator thwarting the plans of mad scientists. Valentine Dyall recreated his radio role in The Man in Black (1950) and played a sinister lodger suspected of being Jack the Ripper in Room to Let (1950). With Stolen Face (1952), director Terence Fisher foreshadowed his own Frankenstein-Movie series and the medical horrors of the European cinema when a plastic surgeon (Paul Henreid) discovered beauty was only skin-deep. Fisher's Four-Sided Triangle (1953) and Spaceways (1953) were both firmly rooted in the burgeoning 1950s Science-Fiction boom. With The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; vt The Creeping Unknown US) Hammer finally made the move towards the type of full-blown Horror Movie with which it would always be identified. Hammer quickly followed up with X The Unknown (1956) and Quatermass 2 (1956; vt Enemy from Space US). The Abominable Snowman (1957; vt The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas US) starred Peter Cushing. The same year, Hammer decided audiences were interested in more human monsters and that the time was right to produce the first colour version of Mary Shelley's classic novel. Directed by Terence Fisher and scripted by Jimmy Sangster, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) starred Cushing as the ruthless Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his horribly scarred creation. This went on to become the highest-grossing movie produced by a UK studio that year and ushered in the Hammer Age of Horror. Hammer quickly had Fisher and Sangster reteam its star duo in Dracula (1958), with Cushing playing Van Helsing and Lee playing Dracula. The result proved an even bigger box-office hit, and the quartet was reunited for colour versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Mummy (1959). Meanwhile Hammer had already embarked on a series of sequels to its two hit horror remakes: because Lee's Monster had been dissolved in a bath of acid, the studio ingeniously decided to make Cushing's Victor Frankenstein the recurring character; the Baron continued his experiments in several further Hammer Frankenstein Movies. Cushing was also back as Van Helsing to confront the Count's disciples in The Brides of Dracula (1960); Lee donned cape and fangs again to return as the eponymous Vampire for Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965) and further Dracula Movies. In an attempt to inject some freshness into the series, Hammer updated the Count's exploits to contemporary London for Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), once again adding Cushing to the mix as Van Helsing's grandson. The actor portrayed the character one final time, battling Kung Fu zombies and John Forbes-Robertson's Dracula in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).

Until 1967, Hammer was based at Bray Studios, a converted country house, where it continued to remake classic horror stories with The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960; vt House of Fright US) (see Jekyll and Hyde Movies), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and created new monsters in The Gorgon (1964) and The Reptile (1966). The company was joined in its revival of the horror movie by rivals Amicus and Tigon in the UK and American International in the USA. As the decade continued, Hammer's output came to depend not only on sequels and revisions of earlier successes, such as The Kiss of the Vampire (1962; vt Kiss of Evil US), The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964), The Mummy's Shroud (1967) and Quatermass and the Pit (1968; vt Five Million Years to Earth US), but diversified with numerous war movies, comedies, Psychological Thrillers, historical dramas, sf and such big-budget fantasies as remakes of H Rider Haggard's She and of One Million Bc. In the early 1970s, as horror movies became less popular, Hammer responded by adding more nudity and violence to its pictures – as in the Karnstein trilogy, being The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1970) and Twins of Evil (1971) – and experimented with new variations on established themes, such as The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Countess Dracula (1970), Hands of the Ripper (1971), Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971), Vampire Circus (1971) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1972).

Hammer returned to its roots with a series of low-brow comedies based on popular tv shows. Although it had almost 170 films and numerous shorts to its credit, Hammer found it harder to compete in the international marketplace, and the financial crash of 1974 was the final nail in the coffin. A German co-production of To the Devil a Daughter (1976), based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, was the end. Although there have been various attempts by current owner Roy Skeggs to keep the name alive – with the short-lived tv series Hammer House of Horror (1980), a package of lacklustre tvms broadcast as Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984), and an often-announced feature production slate during the 1990s – it seems unlikely Hammer will ever again recapture the Gothic elegance and box-office success it enjoyed during its heyday. [SJ]

further reading: The House of Horror: The Complete Story of Hammer Films (1973; rev 1981; rev vt House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Film Story 1994) ed Allen Eyles, Robert Adkinson and Nicholas Fry; A Heritage of Horror (1973) by David Pirie; Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film (1993) by Peter Hutchings; Hammer, House of Horror (1996) by Howard Maxford; Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography (1996) by Tom Johnson and Debrah Del Vecchio.

see also: Journey to the Unknown (1968-1969).

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.