Dreadful Power: A Study of Hammer Studios and the Alluring Danger of the Potent Feminine

Posted: May 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

A Brief History of Hammer Studios Horror

Take a Hammer to It – Introduction to Satisfying Repulsion

In an unassuming late spring day in 1957, a low budget British horror film under the florid title of The Curse of Frankenstein was screened in a small number of venues in the London area. The film which starred the unknown actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing was to propel the Hammer Studios into the minds of the cinematically inclined public and make the genre of low-budget horror moviemaking an important staple. Up until this moment the Studios of Hammer was a small and inconspicuous movie production company making a product for a low amount of money and producing a film schedule which put out a meandering number of diverse cinematic and radio features. At the time Hammer Films was making 5 films a year and no one at the studio had any idea what a success this film would be. Costing less than 70,000 pounds, The Curse of Frankenstein was to bring the studio back may times that amount but was, due to its success, also to define the direction which the studio, and a genre, was to follow in the coming decades.

It was the Spanish immigrate to England, Enrique Carreras, who, conceived of the idea of forming a partnership corporation (with William Hind) which was to be a distribution company for films. On the promoting of Hind, however, the two came to the decision to form a parallel company which would also product films and which, then,  would use the distribution system in place in the sister company.  (Carreras, interestingly, was also the originator of the cinema multiplex and his theater, Blue Halls, had two separate screens for viewing two distinct and new cinematic products and with a seating capacity of around 2000.  The Blue Halls theatre system quickly developed into a chain of theaters.) The Studio, whose name had come from Hinds’ vaudeville act Hammer and Smith, was incorporated as HAMMER Films.

Hammers first production was titled The Public Life of Henry the 8th (1932), followed by The Mystery of Mary Celeste. Over the next five years Hammer Films created a number of low budget films but a slump in the market for films in Britain caused the production company of Hammer to be forced into bankruptcy and liquidation though the film distribution company (called Exclusive) was to survive and give hope to a revival of the Hammer film production company

Back from the Dead – The Newness of the Reanimated Corpse

This hope of Revival came in the  guise of sons of Carraeras and Hinds, Anthony Hinds and James Carreras who joined their fathers (though both had left briefly to fight in WWII) in 1946,  and who revived  Hammer Productions with eye to creating films to fill the scheduling gaps faced by cinemas which had difficulty directly after the European conflict.  Using a number of Country houses for shooting verses the more expensive professional studios the raised from the dead production company of Hammer used these alternative locales to shoot a score of features, but it hit the mark with style, substance, and the ideology of its form, in the Curse of Frankenstein which was to capture the imagination of the public and encourage a new brand of film making outside of the massive studio system.

After a meandering path through many hands a script of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein found its way to the notice of Anthony Hinds.  Though the original novel had long since been in the public domain Hinds was still a bit uneasy about law suits to be had from a too close working of the text (What would Universal Studios say?) and began a long process which was to diverge from the track taken by Universal in its 1939 working of the classic.  After concerns about the narrative, coupled with doubts about the overall script form, Hinds and Carrera commissioned Jimmy Sangster to rework the story as the Curse of Frankenstein and found the finished product so impressive they decided to use it and make the film in color to enhance the horrific effects call for in the newly scripted narrative structure. The use of saturated colors from the Eastmancolor film stock (for Technicolor production) was a must to engulf the viewer in a super-realized reality which would envelop them and enhance the terror of the text.  The Censorship board, BBFC, even noted on seeing the script (1956) that they could “give no assurance that we should be able to pass a film based on the present script and a revised script should be sent us for our comments, in which the overall unpleasantness should be mitigated.”

Yet even with this warning, the Hammer Studio was to precede with the script virtually unchanged and used the filmic palette of colors to ply at and jar the audience in ways unknown until then (the assault and the dismay of color).

The unforeseen popular response to The Curse of Frankenstein led naturally to a sequel in The Revenge of Frankenstein, but it was in the guise of the horror icon of the vampire where Hammer was to further realize their characteristic style and vision.  The script for Dracula was passed on to the censorship board in October of 1957 and received this summary evaluation from the them noting the work of Sangsters Script as being “The uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar”, wondering about the use of color to show copious amounts of (“why need vampires be messier eaters than anyone else?” they asked) blood.

With a budget of 81, 000 pounds, and the winning duo of Peter Cushing starred as all-knowing vampire expert Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as formidably evil Count Dracula (and the new director Terence Fisher), the production of  Dracula was an to become an enormous success, breaking box office receipts the world over.

We Can Only Defeat It Together – The Joint Horror of Visual Style

The team which was to create the style of the Hammer Film was now in place and could work out its vision which was new for the time and which seemed to have a willing and excited public for its consumption

Jimmy Sangster, was kept in place to create and formulate scripts for the Hammer Studios, Len Harris, was the apt cameraman whose work was devoted to the visual signposts of the genre, James Meade worked as editor of all of the penultimate Hammer production and was integral to the creation, formulation, and elaboration of the editing of the forboding ambience and the rapid fright sequences of the classic horror,  Terence Fisher was the director who worked on the first Dracula film and whose visionary style set was to give form to the tone for the Hammer films to come.

After the success of Dracula , the Hammer Studios realized that it had created a singular style with this crew  (and since it would be cheaper to utilize the same cast and crew making the films consecutively),  and it could now focus its efforts in developing new ideas and scripts without continually developing teams to bring these visions to form.  From the mesmerizing Rasputin, the Mad Monk through the Plague of The Zombies (which was done two years before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead which was to influence Romero’s  film  and editing style on to which he was to add multilevel audio information, Ethnicity, and a problematic narrative closure to the horror mix) Hammer studios was to use often the same actors, recycled sets, and the base foundation of the entire film crew, a strategy which paid off time and again.

 Hammer studios kept up this strategy and flourished through the 60’s, but at this time decided upon a change of direction as the New Generation which populated that era, and who was the primary source of its audience, ask for a “newer product” which pointed to the new social pattern and its upheavals. Michael Carraras, who had become director of the studio after his grandfathers death in 1950, asked for a reinvention of the standard Hammer formula after the influx of psychological horror films which had begun to alter irrevocably the genre (as with Hitchcock’s Psycho and Wise’s The Haunting) and demanded of the studio  a  fundamental reworking of the now formulaic horror narrative and its visual grammar. The Generation of Freelove gave the key to this reworking and Carrerras place his vision on the emphasis of sexuality and the free play of nudity.

The Deadliness of Seduction – Dread and Desire towards Death

Hammer productions already had in their stable of actors the dazzling screen presences of Hazel Court and Barbara Shelley and Carreras had seen how these women added both splendor and vigor which made these two into enthralling archetypes tantalizing to both female and male viewers (though the narrative arch often placed these women into sexual stereotypes the overall pattern of the story was to confirm their strengths in overproductive narrative-leakage).  This culminated (along with an oddly vacuous period of the “passive women as visual consumption” for the studio) in the 70’s stream of vampire stories that were steeped in an eroticism and nudity, which played with the conceptions of lesbianism and the ambiguity of sexualization and moral dilemma. The slew of vampire films produced at this time (called now the Carmilla (based on one of the first published Vampire Stories) or Karnstein series) focused the ambiguities and dynamics of a female vampire who would often cross (and confound) the boundaries of sexual placements. Ingrid Pitt played the first of these the strong and dangerous bisexual vampires (Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla vampire tale positions its ambiguity of sexualization in seduction and power, 25 years before the hetero-normalization of Stoker’s Dracula novel) and in The Vampire Lovers she enters the home of an English nobleman and quickly brings questioning desire and social disintegration to its inhabitants of the normative microworld of the estate.

Pitt was to returned for Hammer’s Countess Dracula (not part of the Carmilla trilogy but where she plays the historically true personage of Elizabeth of Bathory, who believed that bathing in virgin blood would perpetuate her youth eternally), Lust for a Vampire (where the sexually unsettling vampire Carmilla is found wandering about the campus of an all-girls school) and Twins of Evil (the last of the Carmilla series, though with little of Carmilla to be seen).  Also in the vampiric genre Hammer was to produce at this time the interesting and original Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter.

After the release by major studios of horror films such as The Exorcist, The Innocents, The Last Man on Earth, and Rosemary’s Baby, which were built on the visual vocabulary and rapid, dislocating “shock” editing developed and elaborated by the Hammer Studios (and not having the funding of these larger corporations), Hammer studios began a decline in fortune and ended its film production with the last (maybe!) theatrical release of the supernatural horror To the Devil….A Daughter.

A revamped Hammer Studios, however, has released this year (2011) the moody supernatural horror piece “Wake Wood” .  Set in an only too normal Irish village a grieving couple who have lost their only daughter come to the village of Wake Wood to escape their haunting and traumatizing memories of loss. Yet under the surface of the village runs the ancient knowledges of the old world which give hope of a short visit from the decreased and may give the couple a brief 3 day resurrection of their daughter.  Yet anguish, hope and despair intrude into the power of the pagan miracle warping the supposed innocence of the resurrection in disastrous ways.

The question of gender in Hammer,Two Film studies:

The Vampire Lovers        Roy Ward Baker (Hammer Studios) 1970             91mins.

Based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella Carmilla.  Carmilla, escaping the clutches of death (as any good vampire does), brings her own bit of seduction, pleasure, desire, disease and death to those who would take her in (or become her lover).

The site of the Captured Gaze as enthralling and deadly is a primary attribute in the conceptual construction of vampirism  and in the story mechanism of The Vampire Lovers this capture is represented by the narrative polarity of simultaneous dread  and desire for female sexuality within a patriarchic system which only can recognize power as localized in the masculine. The questing and repulsed draw of unleashed sexuality, which the powerful feminine embodies in the vampiric figure, forms an entangling mesh contrary to the normative curtailments of sexual definitions and the allotments of power which are socially bestowed. As the figure of this unleashed bodily presence Carmilla stands as both an affirmation of the unbridled sexuality of the feminine and also the resistance to culturally limited discourses of the feminine (which deny power and self actualization to this figure).

Power and self-determination are played out in the unmoored vitality of Carmilla and the danger to heteronormative containment is actualized in the power of the vampire in this tale.  Though Carmilla is not drawn to either sexual partner exclusively, (verses this  quote of Andrea Weiss below), the inability of social constraints to contain the potency of the multiplicity of desire and repulsion places the vampire as questioner and  dissolver of the social norm (just as the attractions outside of normative sexual desire and activity problematize the system):

“The lesbian vampire is more than simply a negative stereotype. She is a complex and ambiguous figure, at once an image of death and an object of desire, drawing on profound subconscious fears that the living have toward the dead and that men have toward women, while serving as a focus for repressed fantasies. The generic vampire image both expresses and represses sexuality, but the lesbian vampire especially operates in the sexual rather than the supernatural realm.”

Hammer vampires and virgins of the Carmilla period are voluptuous and statuesque entities manifesting and emanating a sure power which confounds and refutes the barely stable social regime which entails oppressions and denials. At the conclusion of the Hammer Vampire Film, though the Vampiric Feminine that which shows the denials and oppressions of the system  are banished, conclusion of the narrative reinstates  return to the normal social order, there lingers, nonetheless,  a doubt seeded into the now renormalized society which has repressed (but still cannot restrain) the power of the feminine. The power of the uncontained feminine is both a rampant power surging in the narrative structure of the tale and the massive draw of the box-office as social recognition of the fact of this unsure curtailment of the feminine.   A sense of this power cannot help but linger after the normal seems to be returned in the narrative closure of the film.

The Vampire Lovers, though often it is rebuked for the voyeuristic scenes of nudity, is a strong narrative construction of individual control of sexuality outside of patriarchic containment.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde      Roy Ward Baker (Hammer Studios) 1971           97 mins.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is based on the novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. This film was Hammer Studios second adaptation of the story following the 1960 film The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. The film is most notable for showing Jekyll transform into a female Hyde and having the dual gendered person attempt to define who will be dominate, and at times having the narrative structure recognize and attenuate the arbitrarily constructed pathways of desire and attraction which humans submerge in the guise of hetronormal behavior.  Along with the reworking of the Stevenson text the film uses a parallel narrative to aspects of the historical Jack the Ripper (the first serial killer of note)  and Burke and Hare cases (who infamously moved from grave robbing to murder to augment the number of corpses for medical dissection).

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