Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Entering the House of Hammer

It’s not even midnight, but it’s probably still the latest I’ve ever stayed up on a Sunday night. I’m only nine, after all, and it’s sometime in early 1984. And I’m waiting for the monster to come and scare me.

I waited until Mum and Dad went to bed, reading comic books under the duvet with my flashlight and listening to weird radio plays on the lowest possible volume. I’m not scared of the horror film I want to see, but I am too terrified to sneak out into the lounge for another hour after the house falls silent. I don’t want to get caught.

I’d seen the movie listed in the newspaper yesterday morning and had spent all weekend waiting for the Sunday Horrors to start. I had read about this exact movie in an odd black and white sci-fi movie magazine six months earlier and had been fascinated by the photos I’d seen there. I knew it was a waste of time asking the parents if I could watch it. They would barely let me see the Incredible Shrinking Man, and it was on very late on a school night.

But I didn’t care. Satisfied that everybody in the house was asleep, I crept into the lounge and turned the volume of the television all the way down before switching it on.

The first thing I see is legendary Australian actor Charles Tingwell getting stabbed in the back by a ghoulish Philip Latham, (who was about to show up in the Doctor Who Five Doctors special as Lord Borusa) and strung up like an animal to bleed retina-scorching red blood, followed swiftly by the resurrection of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, who then goes on to feed on the gorgeous Barbara Shelley.

The film is Dracula, Prince of Darkness, and this is the exact moment that I fell in love with Hammer horror films.

I’m no longer tired and watch as Shelley returns as a vampire, only to be staked by Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor and his well-meaning monk mates, before Dracula is (somewhat lamely) consigned to the depths of his own moat. When it’s done, I’m off back to bed, more tired than I’ve ever been, although it still takes me a long time to doze off.

I’m a little nine-year-old zombie for the next few days and it takes a few nights good sleep before I recover. Still, the fear of getting caught for staying up hours and hours past my bedtime and watching forbidden films means I make the best effort to appear as normal as possible, and I do get away with it.

While that tiredness quickly faded, the impression that Hammer’s unique brand of horror leaves on me still shows no sign of fading, a quarter of a century later. Over the years, this love for all things Hammer was only intensified by the general lack of availability.

It was 20 years before I managed to see the last Christopher Lee-starring Dracula and there are still a pile of films that I haven’t been able to see, including Plague of the Vampires and Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde.

Still, it’s a lot easier these days to see these 45-year-old films than it might have been a few short years ago. The flood of DVD releases and the ability to download over the internet has filled several significant gaps in my knowledge of Hammer heritage.

It’s a far cry from the days of reading a short synopsis in magazines and books and wondering what these films were actually like. For a long time there, Hammer films were released on video fairly rarely and had been pushed off late-night television screens by other, more recent, low-budget wonders. I can still remember the thrill of finding Horror of Dracula in the back room of a tiny and dark video store, where tapes had been gathering dust for 10 years, waiting for that one fan.

The funny thing is, there was inevitably disappointment with the finished product. Those short plot summaries I had read about were light on detail and my mind filled the blanks with all sorts of nonsense that was notably lacking in the final film.

And yet, I still dearly loved the films, for all their faults. They were frequently dull (while still overwrought), often rehashed the same themes over and over again (the misunderstood monster was one well Hammer went to a few times too often) and had difficulty hiding the two and a half bob budget they worked under.

But they could also be exciting and gruesome and terrifically entertaining. When it comes to letting loose from the restraints of Victorian repression, Hammer could rarely be beaten. The heroes and villains would all be impeccably suited to start off, with sharp ties and large, ornate gowns, but it invariably degenerated into manly men fighting with ripped shirts and undead woman roaming around cold graveyards in the dead of night, wearing the nightware they were buried in.

The sex appeal of some of these films was thunderous, although I say that as somebody who has sometimes got a little too intimate with them sometimes. But there is something for everybody. Virginial blondes and noble fiancées with the squarest of jaws. Dark eyed gypsy women and cute little victims, buff father figures and some of the best beards in cinema.

The sets could also be occasionally astonishing, with the Hammer production team getting the absolute best out of their budgets, creating vast, gothic spaces with a couple of planks of wood. This goal was certainly helped by some truly gorgeous location work, where an English forest could double for the dark depths of Transylvania. And there were always plenty of castles, ruins and stately homes to use as backdrops.

And while it all got a bit too silly, it was given (occasionally unearned) gravity by some of the actors who would emote through every single line like they were back in the Royal Shakespare Company. The likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee gave the creatures and madmen they portrayed a dignity and self respect often lacking in other horror films. When Cushing would get that cold look in the eye as he went about another vivisection, or Lee would howl with despair and lost dignity, you knew these were men who really meant it, men who were only just clinging to that line between British reserve and utter madness.

These massively charismatic lead performances were well supported by a legion of supporting actors and bit players, who could play scared villagers and resolute companions, while there were always loads of buxom beauties to be saved or avenged. Either way didn’t require much acting beyond a decent set of lungs

With their period setting, vague locations and dreamy plots, many Hammer films are almost timeless, but changing with the time is what killed them in the end. A few too many attempts at hipness left the studio looking old and tired by the mid seventies, groovy updates that never caught on.

Hammer all faded away like Dracula in the sun in the end. There is still a little life in the ashes, although it shows no signs of ever fully leaping back into action.

And maybe it’s for the best. Hammer films can be a little difficult to watch with a cold 21st century eye, they’re slow and sometimes horribly, horribly stupid. They were an incredible source of inspiration and a major evolutionary step in horror cinema, but that doesn’t mean they’re always that good.

And yet, I’m still keeping an eye out for those few I haven’t seen, and I would always take Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in all its clumsy kung fu glory over anything else. Because Hammer films aren’t scary, or clever, or exciting, but they are stylish and occasionally innovative and sexy.

And sometimes, they make me feel like a nine year old kid again, sitting alone in the silence and the dark, waiting for the monster to come.



Ahh, the Sunday Horrors! Preceded by jazz in the afternoon on TV, Spot On if you were channel surfing [course NZ only had two at the time, so channel flipping might be more accurate], the news, a Disease of the Week TV Movie from America, Radio With Pictures [with Karen Hay gurning at that bloke from the Mockers] and - finally, blessedly - the Sunday Horrors. Maybe some gratuitous breast flashes, possibly even some entirely unrealistic lesbian sequences.

An entire generation of young, adolescent NZ males got their minds twisted by this. Not to mention the Closedown Kiwi climbing up into his satellite dish to sleep...


Zom said...

We had a similar thing. My first encounter with a Hammer film was probably just after ITV was granted a license to run past the witching hour (wow, I'd forgotten that for a large chunk of my life television, all television, shut down at midnight - weird!). There was a slot, Late Night Late, that aired all sorts of utter shite. And Hammer horror films.

I'd seen quite a few video nasties before I saw a Hammer film. My nanny rented them from the local 'video van' and allowed Amy and I to watch them, which looking back on it was an awful idea as they consistently scared the fucking shit out of me. Nightmare on Elm Street: the terror lasted months.

But somehow Hammer, despite its cheap production values and creaky plots, still managed to disturb and fascinate me when I eventually came to it. I would probably have to think long and hard about exactly why, but I think it has something to do with its dated poverty stricken theatricality, and well worn idiosyncrasies, and the fact that its was all so familiar conceptually. Thanks to its pervasive pop cultural cannibalisation, Hammer underpinned much of what kids growing up in the 80s thought of as creepy and horrific. But the key thing was the Englishness of it, the fact that you recognised the actors, and that the locations looked like English woods, and the villages looked like English villages, and the light looked like English light, and the skies looked like English skies, and that people spoke in the way that you expected them to speak in English films.

It was in the reappropriation of all that stuff you knew so intimately, or felt you knew so intimately, that the scares and the fascination happened. The way Hammer transformed the familiar into the fearsome was actually reinforced by the low budgets, because seeing through the diagetic illusion somehow increased that familiarity, making the horror more and less real simultaneously. I still find the way those two polarities pull against each other totally mesmerising.

Actually, the best thing I can liken it to is playing live action roleplaying games (Yes, in between the cracks of my cool teenage self image, the spliffs and the parties lurk a lot of dark secrets). You know the wood well, you know the people behind the demon masks, you know that's just a rubber mace, you know those are regular shadows and that the air you're breathing is the same kind of air you were breathing yesterday, and that you're not really being attacked, but you sort of are, and it's all quite intense and maybe a little bit scary. It's just... kinda wrong.