Hammer before horror
Early history (1935–37)
In November 1934 William Hinds, a comedian and businessman, registered his film company, Hammer Productions Ltd. It was housed in a three-room office suite at Imperial House, Regent Street, London. The company name came from Hinds' stage name, Will Hammer, which he had taken from the area of London in which he lived, Hammersmith.
Work began almost immediately on the first film, The Public Life of Henry the Ninth at the MGM/ATP studios, with filming concluding on 2 January 1935. The film tells the story of Henry Henry, an unemployed London street musician, and the title was a "playful tribute" to Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII which was Britain's first Academy Award for Best Picture nominee in 1934. During this time Hinds met Spanish émigré Enrique Carreras, a former cinema owner, and on 10 May 1935 they formed the film distribution company Exclusive Films, operating from an office at 60-66 National House, Wardour Street. Hammer produced four films distributed by Exclusive:
A slump in the British film industry forced Hammer into bankruptcy and the company went into liquidation in 1937. Exclusive survived and on 20 July 1937 purchased the leasehold on 113-117 Wardour Street, and continued to distribute films made by other companies.
, Berkshire. Bray Studios, close to the frequently-used filming location Oakley Court
, was Hammer's principal base from 1951 to 1966.
James Carreras joined Exclusive in 1938, closely followed by William Hinds' son, Anthony. At the outbreak of World War II, James Carreras and Anthony Hinds left to join the armed forces and Exclusive continued to operate in a limited capacity. In 1946, James Carreras rejoined the company after demobilisation. He resurrected Hammer as the film production arm of Exclusive with a view to supplying 'quota-quickies', cheaply made domestic films designed to fill gaps in cinema schedules and support more expensive features. He convinced Anthony Hinds to rejoin the company, and a revived Hammer Film Productions set to work on Death in High Heels, The Dark Road, and Crime Reporter. Not able to afford top stars, Hammer acquired the film rights to BBC radio series such as The Adventures of PC 49 and Dick Barton: Special Agent (an adaptation of the successful Dick Barton radio show). All were filmed at Marylebone Studios during 1947. During the production of Dick Barton Strikes Back (1948), it became apparent that the company could save a considerable amount of money by shooting in country houses instead of studios. For the next production, Dr Morelle - The Case of the Missing Heiress (another radio adaptation), Hammer rented Dial Close, a 23 bedroom mansion beside the River Thames, at Cookham Dean, Maidenhead.
On 12 February 1949 Exclusive registered "Hammer Film Productions" as a company with Enrique and James Carreras, and William and Tony Hinds as directors. Hammer moved into the Exclusive offices in 113-117 Wardour Street, and the building was rechristened "Hammer House".
In August 1949, complaints from locals about noise during night filming forced Hammer to leave Dial Close and move into another mansion, Oakley Court, also on the banks of the Thames between Windsor and Maidenhead. Five films were produced there: Man in Black (1949), Room to Let (1949), Someone at the Door (1949), What the Butler Saw (1950), The Lady Craved Excitement (1950). In 1950, Hammer moved again to Gilston Park, a country club in Harlow Essex, which hosted The Black Widow, The Rossiter Case, To Have and to Hold and The Dark Light (all 1950).
In 1951 Hammer began shooting at their most fondly-remembered base, Down Place, on the banks of the Thames (later known as Bray Studios). The company signed a one-year lease and began its 1951 production schedule with Cloudburst. The house, virtually derelict, required substantial work, but it did not have the construction restrictions that had prevented Hammer from customising previous homes. A decision was made to remodel Down Place into a substantial, custom-fitted studio complex. The expansive grounds were used for much of the later location shooting in Hammer's films, and are a key to the 'Hammer look'.
Also in 1951, Hammer and Exclusive signed a four-year production and distribution contract with Robert Lippert, an American film producer. The contract meant that Lippert Pictures and Exclusive effectively exchanged products for distribution on their respective sides of the Atlantic – beginning in 1951 with The Last Page and ending with 1955,s Women Without Men (AKA Prison Story). It was Lippert's insistence on an American star in the Hammer films he was to distribute that led to the prevalence of American leads in many of the company's productions during the 1950s. It was for The Last Page that Hammer made a significant appointment when they hired film director Terence Fisher, who played a critical role in the forthcoming horror cycle.
Towards the end of 1951 the one-year lease on Down Place expired, and with its growing success Hammer looked towards more conventional studio-based productions. A dispute with the Association of Cinematograph Technicians blocked this proposal, and instead the company purchased the freehold of Down Place. The house was renamed Bray Studios after the nearby village of Bray and it remained as Hammer's principal base until 1966. In 1953 the first of Hammer's science fiction films, Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways, were released.
Hammer Horror contributors
Directors and writers
- Michael Carreras, a.k.a. Henry Younger - writer/director of The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, and director/producer of The Lost Continent.
- Terence Fisher - director of The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and many others.
- Freddie Francis - director of The Evil of Frankenstein and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.
- Tudor Gates - writer of The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil.
- John Gilling - writer and director of The Shadow of the Cat, The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, and The Mummy's Shroud.
- Anthony Hinds, a.k.a. John Elder - writer of The Curse of the Werewolf, Frankenstein Created Woman and others.
- Jimmy Sangster - writer of The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and others; director of The Horror of Frankenstein and Lust for a Vampire.
- Peter Sasdy - director of Taste the Blood of Dracula and Hands of the Ripper.
- Don Sharp - director of The Kiss of the Vampire and Rasputin the Mad Monk.
The scores for many Hammer horror films, including Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, were composed by James Bernard. Other Hammer musical personnel included Malcolm Williamson, John Hollingsworth, and Harry Robertson.
Production designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher were instrumental in creating the lavish look of the early Hammer films, usually on a very restricted budget.
Hammer's horror films featured many actors who appeared repeatedly in a number of movies, forming an informal "Hammer repertory company".
- Ralph Bates appeared in a number of Hammer movies in the early 1970s when the company considered him as a possible replacement both for Peter Cushing in the role of Frankenstein and for Christopher Lee as Dracula. Despite appearing in one film in both these horror series, ultimately he permanently replaced neither actor.
- Shane Briant had leading roles in several well-regarded Hammer films of the early 1970s, like Straight on Till Morning and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.
- Veronica Carlson was a leading lady in Hammer films of the late 1960s.
- Peter Cushing was Hammer’s pre-eminent star from the late 1950s through to the mid-1970s, and remains, along with Christopher Lee, the actor most commonly associated with the company; in Hammer films he played Baron Frankenstein six times and Doctor Van Helsing five times, along with many other characters, both heroic and villainous.
- Andrew Keir was a Scottish actor who appeared in leading roles for Hammer in movies such as Quatermass and the Pit and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb.
- Christopher Lee was propelled to international stardom when he played Count Dracula in Hammer’s 1958 version of the classic horror tale, a role he would play a further six times for Hammer in various sequels. He is today regarded as one of the biggest horror stars in film history.
- Miles Malleson was employed by Hammer to provide comic relief in their earlier gothic horror movies such as The Brides of Dracula.
- Francis Matthews played second leads in several Hammer films such as The Revenge of Frankenstein and Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
- André Morell was employed mainly in supporting parts in British films of the 1950s and 1960s, but took lead roles for Hammer in movies like The Shadow of the Cat and The Plague of the Zombies.
- Oliver Reed had his international film career launched by Hammer, for whom he gave powerful performances in movies like The Curse of the Werewolf, Paranoiac and The Damned.
- Michael Ripper was Hammer’s most prolific actor, appearing in dozens of supporting roles for the company, usually as publicans, coach drivers, and minor officials, throughout the company’s most successful years. His final Hammer horror film appearance was in Scars of Dracula in 1970.
- Barbara Shelley was an actress who performed in Hammer movies such as The Gorgon and Quatermass and the Pit.
- Thorley Walters was a well known comedy actor in British films who played semi-comic supporting roles in Hammer movies such as The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein Created Woman.
The birth of Hammer Horror (1955–59)
Hammer's first significant experiment with horror came in a 1955 adaptation of Nigel Kneale's BBC Television science fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment, directed by Val Guest. As a consequence of the contract with Robert Lippert, American actor Brian Donlevy was imported for the lead role and the title was changed to The Quatermass Xperiment to cash in on the new X certificate for horror films. The film was unexpectedly popular, and led to the popular 1957 sequel Quatermass 2 – again adapted from one of Kneale's television scripts, this time by Kneale and with a budget double that of the original: £92,000. In the meantime, Hammer produced another Quatermass style horror film, X the Unknown, originally intended as part of the series until Kneale denied them permission to use his characters (the writer is known to have disliked Donlevy’s performance as Quatermass). At the time, Hammer voluntarily submitted scripts to the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) for comment before production. Regarding the script of X the Unknown, one reader/examiner (Audrey Field) commented on 24 November:
"Well, no one can say the customers won't have had their money's worth by now. In fact, someone will almost certainly have been sick. We must have a great deal more restraint, and much more done by onlookers' reactions instead of by shots of 'pulsating obscenity', hideous scars, hideous sightless faces, etc, etc. It is keeping on and on in the same vein that makes this script so outrageous. They must take it away and prune. Before they take it away, however, I think the President [of the BBFC] should read it. I have a stronger stomach than the average (for viewing purposes) and perhaps I ought to be reacting more strongly."