Hammering Out Horror
To fully regale the evolution of horror films and in particular the vampire genre, one must acknowledge the fine works of England's Hammer Films, whose contribution to the world of horror is nothing less than legendary. It all began in 1913 when, in Hammersmith, London, Enrique Carreras purchased his first in a line of cinemas. Three years later, he partnered with William Hind, and together in 1934 they formed Hammer Productions and a year later Exclusive Films Ltd. as a distribution company. They immediately began making films but were halted by the onset of World War II and couldn't continue distributing productions through Exclusive until 1945. Two years later, Hammer was revived and in 1949 became Hammer Film Productions Limited.
What happened in 1957 was Hammer's turning point, when they unleashed director Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (based on the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein), featuring Peter Cushing as the Baron von Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the creature. The following year, the same trio teamed up for Horror of Dracula, which proved to be just the vehicle Hammer needed to solidify its stronghold as the premiere horror film producer of the day. Both films were incredibly successful and would provide a starting point for a number of sequels and successive films. Horror of Dracula in particular is said to have raked in over eight times the cost of the film's production. All the better that Horror and the Hammer Films to come were in color, adding to visual appeal of the set designs and, of course, the blood. The film also marked the collaboration of director Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, and the duo who are without a doubt the most legendary pair in horror history — Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (see Chapter 15).
During the mid- to late 1940s Hammer produced several films, including Dick Barton Special Agent, and continued to grow throughout the 1950s. It wasn't until 1955 that
The 1960s would prove to be an interesting decade for Hammer Films. While the 1960 The Brides of Dracula was one of Hammer's most popular in their vampire franchise, there's often a mixed cauldron of reviews for the film, which took the bold step of presenting viewers with a young blonde vampire called the Baron Meinster (played by David Peel). No doubt a Dracula flick without the tall, dark, and dangerous presence of Christopher Lee was a risk to be certain, but Peel, despite his youthful good looks, seemed to elicit mixed emotions both with critics and audiences. Folks loved him or hated him.
A trio of other vampire films would follow Brides, including Kiss of the Vampire (1964), which featured Hammer's first female vampire in Noel Willman, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). Prince of Darkness marked Christopher Lee's long-awaited return to the role he made famous, having intentionally stayed clear of the renowned fangster with the intent of avoiding being typecast. In what amounted to a nonspeaking, mostly hissing role, Lee again teamed with director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster and channeled his inner brute to terrorize two couples who happened upon his castle. Dracula indeed met his inevitable demise at the climax of the film, this time in icy waters.
Employing the intentional plotline succession from the end of one Dracula film to the beginning of the next, Christopher Lee's fiend was unintentionally revived in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave by a priest who himself plunged into the water, his blood reawakening the black devil. Without the direction of Terence Fisher, Risen lost the distinct romantic aspect so prevalent in the earlier Lee installments, instead favoring more action sequences.
The Nail in the Coffin
Though the subject is often debated, part of Hammer's success in their Dracula productions was not mass producing them. Eight years had passed from the time Christopher Lee first appeared in Horror of Dracula until he returned in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. By the 1970s, with pressure to create more revenue, the Dracula franchise inevitably suffered with one vampire flick coming after the other. Sadly, that strategy would work to Hammer's detriment and bring an end to their domination in the horror genre.
In Horror of Dracula, the majority of the story is left to Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. Christopher Lee, as the menacing Dracula, only speaks just over a dozen lines at the beginning of the film to the ultimately doomed Jonathan Harker. In a remarkable turn, the cloak that Lee originally wore during the filming was found in October of 2007 in a London dress shop. Missing for three decades, the cape, which was verified by Lee himself as the original, is valued at upwards of $44,000.
Hammer's first vampiric offering in the seventies was the 1970 film, Taste the Blood of Dracula. Starring Christopher Lee, this installment saw his big, bad bloodsucking self yet again resurrected, this time by a Satanist, Lord Courtley, who procured the Count's ring, his cloak, and a vial of blood. Set in Victorian England and focused on Victorian aristocracy, Courtley is hellbent on reviving the dark devil and lures a trio of bored cohorts to help him. His prize for doing do, was, of course, his life. So begins Dracula's insatiable lust for revenge (due to his servant's demise) and the killing of each of the three men's progeny. Later that year, Lee reprised his role in Scars of Dracula. Again resurrected with the help of a bat dripping blood on his immortal ashes, a rather sadistic Dracula torments a village until at last being struck by lightning.
Also released in 1970 was Hammer's The Vampire Lovers, featuring Ingrid Pitt as a lesbian vampire in a surreal and erotic tale loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's “Carmilla” (see Chapter 3). The next year featured Countess Dracula, with Pitt basing her character on the evil Countess Erzé-bet Bathóry (see Chapter 11). This was followed by Lust for a Vampire (the sequel to The Vampire Lovers) directed by Jimmy Sangster. In 1971, Peter Cushing attempted to squash the evils of vampirism in Twins of Evil, which again made use of Le Fanu's “Carmilla” characters.
Then in 1972 came Vampire Circus, in which a vampire seeks revenge upon a plague-ridden village, and the sixth Christopher Lee performance in Dracula A.D. 1972, a more contemporary outing that reunited Lee with Cushing as his interminable foe, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. Taking place in twentieth-century London, the film also introduced Van Helsing's granddaughter, Jessica, who would also take part in Lee's final Dracula film, Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1974, which sadly marked his final vampiric coupling with Cushing.
After Satanic Rites, Lee bid adieu to his most famous Hammer alter ego, a true rite of passage to one of the most famous and historic portrayals in vampire cinematic history. Following the release of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter in 1974 (see Chapter 17), Hammer Films, acquiescing to the realization that gothic horror had run its course, ceased its productions of vampire cinema, ending a legacy and leaving filmmakers of the future to create new and imaginative versions of the vampire of the ages.