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The midnight ritual of the midnight ritual: late night Hammer Horror
It very quickly became a tradition. Largely because it was inescapable, so you might as well make it deliberate.
You came home from the pub, as drunk as your student funds would allow, and put the TV on. It was the early ‘90s and you were a student, so there was no VCR and only four channels to watch. You might have thought that they would try to distinguish themselves from each other, but no. They were all showing delirious ‘70s horror movies.
If you were lucky it might be Amicus’s delightfully ludicrous Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, or Tigon’s folk horror classic Witchfinder General. It might even be the splendidly obscure Edward Woodward movie The Appointment, a movie I saw episodically, while drunk, over a period of about three years as it appeared unexpectedly at three in the morning on Tyne Tees. (I started to suspect I had entirely dreamt it. It has just been released on DVD by the BFI and is, right now, sitting on my desk beside me.) But it was usually something made by Hammer.
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Hammer had been producing films since the ‘30s: cheap, quota-quicky, B-movie stuff. They had a record of genre adaptations - radio detective serials such as Dick Barton - but their classic work really began with their film version of Nigel Kneale’s groundbreaking ‘50s TV sci-fi The Quatermass Experiment. There were further Kneale adaptations, but while their version of his The Abominable Snowman with Peter Cushing is rather good, Kneale didn’t like the way they adapted Quatermass and they had to procure further horror material elsewhere.
Fortunately there was a lot of it lurking in the public domain; lumbering figures so well known to the public that they were in danger of becoming caricatures, or meat for suburban sitcoms such as The Munsters. All Hammer had to do was apply a little surgical scripting and some enlivening lightning and they might, once more, come alive. Alive!
1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, with Peter Cushing as Victor von Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his creature, does to Mary Shelley’s story what Victor did to the cadavers he grave-robbed. It carves it up, splices it with parts of other people’s deformed ideas and then drops its brain in a cemetery squabble, leaving it a lurid, shambling, horribly successful monster.
It was quickly followed by 1958’s Dracula (Cushing as Van Helsing, Lee as, of course, The Count) and 1959’s The Mummy (Lee as the Mummy and Cushing as the archaeologist who digs it up and then has to put it back in the ground). There followed more than a decade of increasingly unhinged thrills, including Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes, wolfmen and dinosaurs, Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and the Hong Kong kung-fu/Dracula fang-‘em-up Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.
All this meant that by the late ‘80s Hammer horror movies were a mainstay of the Friday late-night TV schedules, just as its fellow British B-movie franchise, Carry On, was a predictable feature of Saturday afternoons. Hammer and Carry On had two things in common: breasts. They also shared a peculiarly squeamish worldview, a prurient liberated ‘70s take on prudish pre-war morality. Their world is deeply paternalistic. Hammer’s old white men are always right, the young white men are always happily pugilistic in defence of their fathers, and the young white women scream. Any woman over 30 is daffy or a crone, or both.
They inherit the sensibility of Imperial Victorian pulp: square-jawed British male indignation in the face of female foolishness and foreign malevolence. Structural racism is baked in. In what is one of the best Hammers, The Devil Rides Out, when the Devil himself appears, he is played by a black actor whose mere appearance, doing nothing but staring at the protagonists with a sort of amused boredom, is enough to reduce Christopher Lee to howling incantations. Blackness, in this world, is ugliness and in Hammer, ugliness is always evil.
The first few classic ‘50s Hammer Horror movies - The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy - are echoes of the great Universal Studios cycle of horror movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s. But while both series use one actor to play both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy - Christopher Lee for Hammer and Boris Karloff for Universal - the performances and depictions of the monsters are very different.
Lee’s monsters are hideously disfigured; shambling, mute agents of beastly savagery. The make up obscures his face, which is an utter crime given what a face it is. Karloff’s face, on the other hand, is always visible (although Jack Pierce’s make-up for Frankenstein is legendary) and his monsters are as full of pathos and humanity as they are of horror. His monster in Frankenstein is a distressed and uncomprehending child, abandoned by his father and persecuted by all around him, resorting to violence as a response to a violent world. His Imhotep in The Mummy is pursued down the centuries by his grief, driven to black magic by his obsessional love.
To be fair to Hammer, they do at least give us a tragic Wolfman in the form of a young Oliver Reed, far preferable to the lumpen Lon Chaney Jr in Universal’s The Wolfman. Werewolves are always tragic; they are, after all, a metaphor for toxic masculinity, and we must empathise with men driven to violence by their uncontrollable emotions, the poor dears. In Reed’s case, he appears to have become a lycanthrope because his mother, a mute servant girl, was raped by a mad beggar; but is Reed we are asked to have sympathy for, as his predation on women turns the town against him.
The monsters in Universal movies are misunderstood misfits; in Hammer movies they are outcast abominations. Anything that strays beyond bourgeois Victorian mores must be hunted down and destroyed, even the luckless wolfman. Hammer’s oeuvre is instinctively repressive and conventional.
It is also, to be fair, beautiful to look at. Like Roger Corman’s roughly contemporaneous cycle of Poe 'adaptations’, the films make a virtue of their shortcomings. Constrained by small budgets and short shooting times, they are full of inventiveness and brio. The sets are packed with enthusiastic Victoriana; the colour film is saturated with bloody reds and ghoulish greens; director Terence Fisher conjures magic and splendour from painted backdrops and worn out properties. And, like Corman, Hammer knew they needed great performers to make it all work. Corman had Vincent Price; Hammer went one better with both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. One all twinkling, fierce intelligence, the other all saturnine force, both so watchable that their twin charisma almost overpowers the lacklustre dialogue and lurid plots.
This is just as well, because their horror is not terribly horrifying. In a post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre cinema, Hammer movies are not frightening as horror films, however ghastly we might find their politics now. They are manic exercises in pulp gothic, all bursting bodices and lightning-dashed pathetic fallacy, the cheapness only amplifying the strangeness.
There is something emblematic in their insistent use of day-for-night photography, the film under-exposed and blue tinted so that scenes shot in the day instead now appear to have been performed inside of a bottle of Quink. It is a technique, like back projection, that relies entirely on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, our tacit agreement that the man shaking the wobbly bit of metal is a thunderstorm and that the plaster of paris the Count is lurking behind is mediaeval tracery. It flaunts the artificiality of the drama to encourage our engagement in it. If we refuse to believe then we only have ourselves to blame for not enjoying it.
This strange dream-like quality is further heightened for British audiences by the casting of stalwart character actors in bit parts. The fate of Oliver Reed’s Wolfman lands in the unlikely hands of town mayor Peter Sallis (Last of the Summer Wine and Wallace and Gromit) and local hunter Warren Mitchell, while the lynchpin of the Duc de Richelieu’s epic battle with Satan in The Devil Rides Out is Paul Eddington out of The Good Life. Mind you, I am perfectly happy with the fate of creation resting in the hands of Paul Eddington. Seems like a thoroughly sensible choice.
Hammer horror movies were perfect for drunk people because they were themselves altered states of consciousness, moving in and out of dreams as sitcom characters fiddled with steampunk chemistry sets and Carpathian forests grew on the outskirts of Slough. You weren’t watching them for plot or the dialogue; you were watching them for pure nuggets of b-movie strangeness and for the comforting predictability of pulp gothic, well worn tropes of Victorian horror.
The climax of The Devil Rides Out takes place in Paul Eddington’s house (I’m surprised Tom and Barbara didn’t come round to complain), as arch-magus Charles Gray (bringing the unparalleled sinister suavity he brought to Blofeld and the Narrator in Rocky Horror Picture Show) sends all the powers of hell against Christopher Lee and his accomplices. And by powers of hell I mean a close up of a tarantula and a rider on a pale horse who jigs up and down outside of their magic circle thanks to the film being run backwards and forwards - an effect, certainly, if not entirely ‘special’.
All night Christopher Lee’s Duc de Richelieu must maintain his spell and protective circle against the coming of the dawn and with it, safety. And what is it to watch a Hammer movie, drunk, in the dark, if not a ritual? A performance of ancient nonsense, whose only magic lies in age rather than power; a document of long forgotten beliefs, the recitation of which is a habit, a tradition. An act of superstition like saluting a magpie or touching wood, requiring no belief or commitment. A practice to ward off the outer and inner dark, keeping you safe until dawn. At which point the true horror arrives, in the form of breakfast TV.
Read more on the weirdness and dislocation of 70s cinema:
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