Not long ago, Julia acquired a copy of the premier issue of CLARET, a lavishly produced magazine for connoisseurs, not of wine but HAMMER HORROR films of the 1950s-1970s. The freely flowing RED liquid of the title refers to the BLOOD that gushed in these films, the most memorable often featuring CHRISTOPHER LEE and/or PETER CUSHING.
CLARET #1 recently prompted us to watch the old movies that inspired this magazine. We’ve so far watched over a dozen and despite the inevitable dodgy rubber bat now and then, we haven’t watched a bad one yet (well, an unentertaining one anyway). I’d been terrified by some of these films as a wee nipper, and it has been fun seeing them again.
I’m not sure when I first saw a HAMMER movie, but remember watching quite a few while living in Britain when I was 10 years old. There were sci-fi movie matinees & ‘creature features’ on telly, and seeing Christopher Lee’s DRACULA shift from an urbane Euro-gentleman to a savage animalistic predator in the blink of a bloodshot eye always terrified the wee out of wee me. Peter Cushing’s VAN HELSING seemed hopelessly outmatched, armed only with a few sticks & a crucifix as he bravely entered The Count’s lair, often seething with toothy immortal minions. Of course, it all seems very quaint now, and those horrors of yesteryear have become a cosy escapist refuge from the true horrors of the 21st century news..
HAMMER was founded in the 1930s, but became a force in sensationalist cinema from the late 1950s to the late 1970s (largely due to the charisma of Pete & Chris) inspiring many copycat studios in Britain and beyond. Though famous for horror, they also did sci-fi, crime films, and even comedies. In our nightly viewings, we’ve focussed so far on their creepy films, and have wandered off the HAMMER reservation a few times to see similar fare of the same era made by other studios, especially if they feature Cushing & Lee.
Peter Cushing had the range to play likable heroes, light comedy, and sinister evil types with equal aplomb, whereas Christopher Lee tended to play baddies the best. Whatever franchise he appears in, Christopher Lee always has an undercurrent of the regal vampire in everything I’ve ever seen him in, bringing that same coiled FERAL quality to all his roles. The Count’s flashing eyes and flaring nostrils appear in Star Wars (Count Dooku: Space Dracula) Lord Of The Rings (Saruman: Wizard Dracula) and James Bond (Scaramanga: Assassin Dracula).
Though often at each other’s throats on film, Cushing & Lee became the best of friends in real life, and went on to do 24 films together. Apart from their classic collaborations as Dracula & Van Helsing, their versions of Frankenstein & his Monster, and The Mummy, Pete & Chris did a variety of other genre films, including a Sherlock Holmes story. Here are the HAMMER films what we’ve seen thus far, and films by other studios that aped their style, most with either Pete or Chris:
(HORROR OF) DRACULA (or simply “DRACULA” as the film is known in the UK) is still one of the best ever dramatizations of Bram Stoker’s meandering book. HAMMER’s Count is like a rabid animal. Even now, seen through the retro cheesiness, Christopher Lee’s Dracula is still menacing.
CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER Alas, neither Pete nor Chris appear, but this is a fun cheese-fest just the same, and appears to be the start of a ‘swashbuckling vampire hunter‘ franchise that never had a sequel.
THE MUMMY Pete stars as an archeologist and Chris as the Mummy, used as a hitman by an Egyptian who’s tired of all these Brits nicking Egyptian stuff. The wrinkle? Chris’ Mummy has the hots for Pete’s missus.
HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES Pete plays Sherlock and Chris plays Lord Baskerville in Hammer’s entertaining version of the prototype ‘that’s no ‘ghost’, it’s a cover up for up a crime‘ Scooby-Do plot.
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA A trio of bored upper class twats in search of new depraved thrills inadvertently revive Count Dracula and wish they’d stayed home with a warm cup of cocoa.
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN Universal made Karloff’s monster the star of their series, whereas HAMMER made the mad baron the true monster of their 7-film franchise, with electrifying performances by Pete as Dr Frankenstein.
CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF Oliver Reed in his first starring role plays the hirsute horror. Less horrific and more tragic than the typical werewolf yarn, we watch as a child cursed at birth inevitably becomes a werewolf in adulthood.
BRIDES OF DRACULA This was the first sequel in Hammer’s Dracula series, and it is very good though suffers from a lack of.. well, Dracula himself. Thankfully Hammer figured out how to revive him when Chris came back later.
HORROR EXPRESS An entertaining Hammer knockoff. Pete & Chris fight otherworldly evil aboard a train hurtling through pre-revolutionary China & Russia, in a mashup of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” and “THE THING”.
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE Sadly there is no Van Helsing (AKA Pete) to fight with, so the count makes life a misery for two local priests instead, even making one of them his altar boy.
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH No Pete in this one, but Chris plays a goodie doctor, embroiled in a plot by a man striving for immortality. The baddie stays alive by stealing glands from living people, and needs a surgeon to do the deed. A creepy concept bogged down by too much talking and not enough murdering.
THE CREEPING FLESH A Hammer knockoff, where Pete & Chris play mad scientist brothers whose simmering sibling rivalry over an evil skeleton bubbles over into sinister shenanigans, resulting in.. insanity!
REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN The first sequel sees the Baron cheat the guillotine that was prepared for him at the end of the first movie, and go back to the drawing board and try to stitch together a less murdery monster. Alas..
THE SKULL One of the most entertaining HAMMER movies we’ve seen so far is actually by rival studio AMICUS productions. This stylish supernatural/psychological thriller stars both Pete & Chris, haunted by the Maquis de Sade’s skull. The film gets better as it goes along, with the last third largely silent.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Hammer’s version of this often-filmed story is not as dark or violent as you might expect but is entertaining nevertheless, as Herbet Lom lurks in his sewer bat cave beneath the London Opera.
HAMMER seems to have used many different distributors outside the UK, and perhaps because of this they are not all easy to find, on streaming services here in the USA anyway. There are several I remember enjoying and/or being scared by that I’ve not found so far, such as the 4 films featuring Dr Bernard Quatermass. “QUATERMASS & THE PIT” in particular made a huge impression on me as a kid, and I’d like to see it again, plus many others that I’ve only read about, such as “THE DEVIL RIDES OUT”.
In watching these old films, I chase a Dracula movie I seem to remember, but that might not actually exist. Franchises always contain multiple variations on a theme, and the viewings of several films eventually coalesce into one amazing movie in the memory. I’ve had the same experience before (with Bond movies or Star Wars movies) often finding that the reality isn’t as amazing as memory implies.. Still, we’ve still not seen “DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS”, nor several others in that series, so I’m not giving up the search for the HAMMER Holy Grail just yet. In the meantime, I look forward to tracking down more old HAMMER films, particularly those that feature (together or apart) those elder statesmen of shlock horror PETE & CHRIS!