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10 June, 2012

Back from the Dead: the Return of Hammer Horror




Beginning in the late 1950s, and continuing into the 1970s, one studio was synonymous with the production and distribution of Classic Horror films, those films featuring the creatures of gothic nightmares—vampires, werewolves, witches, and the walking dead.  Just as Universal held the title of the “House that Horror Built” in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hammer Films was the source for gothic horror throughout my childhood.  I was on a first-name basis with Christopher Lee’s Dracula long before I met Bela Lugosi’s, and to this day, for me at least, Peter Cushing is the definitive Dr. Frankenstein.

Unfortunately, Hammer’s popularity on the big screen never quite translated into long-term financial security.  Though its films generated huge box office revenues (Hammer’s 1957 movie CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the film which started Hammer’s reign as the king of horror, was for many years Britain’s most profitable domestic production), most of that money found its way to the overseas distributors, many of whom had fronted the cost of production for the films.  This left the studio, under the direction of Michael Carreras, in a rather precarious position.  As long as there was sufficient overseas demand for their product, primarily in the US, then the funding was readily available for the studio to maintain production.  However, this often left the studio without the ownership of the movies it produced, and without the potential revenue such movies would generate in re-release.  It also meant that, when the US market for classic Horror began to dry up in the mid-1970s, so did Hammer’s primary source of capital.  Hammer’s last feature was 1976’s TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, directed by Peter Sykes.  An attempt to capitalize on the popularity of demonic-themed Horror films following the blockbuster successes of ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, and THE OMEN, Hammer’s entry into the sub-genre was a case of too little, too late.  Except for the occasional television program produced for the British market, Hammer Films, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

However, as is the case with any good horror tale, the dead have an aversion to remaining buried.  In May of 2007, the rights to Hammer’s name, as well as their library of titles, were purchased by Dutch producer John De Mol.  The resurrected studio’s first feature production was 2010’s LET ME IN, the remake of the highly-acclaimed Swedish Vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (LÅT DEN RÄTTE KOMMA IN) from 2008.  That success (though the film earned a meager $13 million at the box-office, both critics and fans raved over it) was quickly followed up by 2011’s THE RESIDENT, a psychological thriller which reunited the great Christopher Lee with the studio that made him a Horror icon.  Starring Hilary Swank and Jeffery Dean Morgan, and directed by Antii Jokinen, it wasn’t as well received as LET ME IN.  Still, Hammer Films was back on the map, a return given an implied blessing by the inclusion of Lee in the cast.  And its biggest success was yet to come.

Based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill (which had previously been adapted for the screen in 1989), THE WOMAN IN BLACK was the reborn studio’s most ambitious project to date.  The first post-HARRY POTTER feature for star Daniel Radcliffe, Hammer started filming on the project in late September 2010, on a budget of $17 million.  Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor (the British term for lawyer) dispatched to a small coastal village to settle the estate of a recently-deceased woman.  From the moment of his arrival, Kipps is made aware that his presence is unwelcome, and that nothing would please the villagers more than his immediate return to London.  Determined to accomplish his task (indeed, his job depends upon it), Kipps finds himself drawn deeper into a supernatural mystery that seems to involve the entire village.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK, directed by James Watkins, is a rarity for these modern times:  A good, old-fashioned gothic ghost story.  Opting for genuine scares, rather than buckets of gore and cheap shocks, Watkins crafted a thrilling film that succeeded with both critics and fans.  With an opening weekend gross of over $20 million (placing it second for the weekend only to the teen Sci-Fi film CHRONICLE), laudatory reviews from critics, and an enthusiastic response from fans, Hammer 2.0 had its first blockbuster success.  The film ended its theatrical run with a $54 million domestic gross, and $127 million internationally.  Not since Hammer’s glory days had they seen success of that caliber, and they aren’t done yet.

Recently, Hammer has placed several films into production … John Pogue’s THE QUIET ONES; BONESHAKER, a co-production with Cross Creek Pictures; GASLIGHT; and a sequel to THE WOMAN IN BLACK, subtitled ANGELS OF DEATH.  They’ve also branched out into publishing, in partnership with Random House, and have even announced plans for a visitor attraction.  As owner of the vast Hammer library of titles, the new version of the studio should have the one vital ingredient to bring its plans to fruition; the one ingredient its predecessor lacked—a viable source of steady revenue.
As someone who loves classic horror, and who has been a life-long fan of the type of Horror films that were the hallmark of the original Hammer, it’s my sincere hope that they succeed in their plans.  Enough of torture-porn, “found footage,” and vampires taken from the pre-adolescent fantasies of young girls.  Give me ghosts, ghouls, mummies, werewolves, vampires who look like vampires.

Give me Hammer Horror once again.










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