Though it doesn’t by any means claim to be a definitive history of the influential British horror film company, Marcus Hearn’s The Hammer Vault (Titan Books) serves as a tantalizing overview of Hammer Films. Following the company’s releases chronologically — from its earliest sci-fi releases (Quatermass Xperiment, X - the Unknown), its bloody gothic remakes (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, et al) and their multitude of sequels through later hits like the Raquel Welch break-out One Million Years B.C., Hearn’s coffee table book devotes two pages apiece to depicting publicity material, script pages, and props to each film, with text providing historical context for each release.
While much of the company’s oeuvre looks tame today, it’s amusing to see how much outrage they generated among British film critics back in the day. Hammer cannily took advantage of this notoriety (placing the letter “X” prominently in two of its earliest title, for instance), later making a practice of hiring Playboy playmates as heroines in their films — and trumpeting this fact in their promo material.
Among the collectibles included in this book, Hearn amusingly includes some scathing contemporary reviews. 1957’s Revenge of Frankenstein, for instance, drew a newspaper piece lamenting its release — and ending with a plea for gentler movies (“the films longest remembered are the ones in which truth is coupled with the warmth of kindness.”) Though the company made periodic bids for critical respectability (e.g., the Bette Davis stage-based black comedy, The Anniversary), its origins as a manufacturer of gory gothics repeatedly worked against it.
Prudishly critical nay-sayers aside, to lovers of old-fashioned horror, just the Hammer brand name conjures up a body of richly filmed genre works. The company made the careers of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who both appeared in its first two gothic remakes, Frankenstein and Dracula.
That first is particularly noteworthy for the way scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster treated Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, changing him from an obsessive misguided scientist to an amoral s.o.b., a reconfiguration that would characterize Hammer’s anti-hero through a number of sequels.