Despite almost three decades during which no films were produced under that banner and the wide range of genres they covered, including comedy, mystery, spy thrillers, crime dramas, science fiction and feature adaptations of hit television properties, the name Hammer remains synonymous with British horror cinema, so it was no surprise that when the studio was relaunched in 2008 it was with a bloody eye on that particular market.
Their most enduring properties the ongoing series launched by 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein and 1958’s Dracula, both of them starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and directed by Terence Fisher from a script by Jimmy Sangster, the ongoing success of them and their ilk on the global platform led to the studio being recognised with the Queen’s Award to Industry in 1968.
An auspicious period for Hammer, it was also during that year they entered their first co-production alongside the newly formed merger of their long-running associates Seven Arts Productions and the entertainment giant Warner Bros, allowing Hammer access to finance for their projects and guaranteed distribution to the significant American market.
It is this period which is the focus of Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years, a new documentary written and directed by Marcus Hearn, official historian of Hammer Film Productions and much more besides, with particular attention given to 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1972’s Dracula A.D. 1972 and 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, though mention is made of many other productions of the time.
Understandably, with Fisher, Cushing, Sangster and most recently Lee all having passed, along with many other noted figures associated with Hammer such as producers James Carreras, Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds, director Roy Ward Baker and composer James Bernard, much of the information is instead provided by well-informed but nevertheless vicarious sources, among them the writers and film historians Christopher Frayling, Denis Meikle and Jon Rigby.
Those directly involved who have been interviewed include Peter Sasdy, the director of Taste the Blood of Dracula who later made The Stone Tape, script editor Nadja Regin and recurring Hammer actors Madeline Smith, Veronica Carlson, Caroline Munro and John Carson, the latter of whom has also died since the documentary was filmed.
The speakers considering the context of the times, the relaxation of censorship allowing more extreme expressions of violence and nudity on screen, there is agreement that Hammer’s attempts to respond to the shifting audience expectation was that of middle-aged executives struggling to comprehend how to update their somewhat stylised and restrained format without compromising their core values.
The attempts to diversify including When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and the ambitious Moon Zero Two, neither were well received, and falling back on what had once been a reliable formula was no longer offering the same returns, the embarrassing incongruity of transplanting Count Dracula to swinging seventies London a creative misfire which could not complete with the shocking contemporary horror produced across the Atlantic such George Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
The latter produced by Warner Bros on a scale which Hammer could never match, the loss of that financial support and direct access to the American market when the partnership lapsed came at a time when the whole British film industry was in recession, the collapse of Hammer accelerated by its failure to adapt but tied to wider changes in the industry as the late seventies ushered in the era of the blockbuster.
Packed with clips of the films discussed, remastered to their full flawless glory, as well as behind-the-scenes photography and footage and charming candid shots, the discussions bring out the elements of narrative sophistication often overlooked in the films of Hammer and the efforts of the directors to bring intelligence to their work, and while there are superfluous inclusions of parkland shooting locations and excerpts of a live reading of an unproduced script, Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years is a warming reminder of why the echoes still carry from when the Hammer struck harder.