by Jeremy Wheat
Notwithstanding the works of Satyajit Ray and Sergei Eisenstein, few foreign independent influences have had as broad an effect on American cinema as England's Hammer Films Limited. Some might find that a far-reaching proclamation, but I'm confident that there's ample evidence to bear this out.
The Creature (Christopher Lee)
attacks Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing)
in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
Having gone into television production in the 80s before closing its doors for good, Hammer nonetheless remains the most successful British film studio ever, producing more than 200 features over five decades. The studio is best remembered for its thrillers, particularly gothic and singularly British retellings of Universal Studios classic monster franchises - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Werewolf. Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the more apparent filmmakers to have borrowed a few of their more lurid tones (and actors) from Hammer's colourbox. Hammer produced far more than horror films over their long run, but here I will focus on their more exploitive, though no less artful, genre pictures.
Founded in the mid-1930s in England by two pairs of fathers and sons, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Tony Hinds, they took the name Hammer from the senior Hinds' earlier stage name as music-hall comedian Will Hammer. Carreras the elder had been a theater chain owner prior to their partnership, and while they initially formed an independent distributor wing called Exclusive Films, Ltd., Hammer Productions quickly became the focus. The first films Hammer produced were designed largely to put butts in seats for as small a cost as possible. Making war pictures, comedies, musicals, documentaries and news reels, among other films, these early works bear little resemblance to their subsequent genre pictures. It's likely that Hammer didn't realize they even had a particular speciality until the release of The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955.
The Creeping Unknown/Quartermass Xperiment
Hammer had attempted sci-fi as early as 1953's Spaceways, but the Quatermass series caught on faster. Released as The Creeping Unknown in the US, The Quatermass Xperiment was based on a BBC Quatermass drama. The story: When Britain's first manned rocket returns from space, only one of the pilots is aboard and seriously wounded. He's being consumed by an alien organism which, naturally, feeds on humans, growing ever more monstrous as it does so. Shot in black and white, the thematic elements familiar to fans of 50s drive-in sci-fi are in large supply here. A few army men, a gasping female, scientists who help whip the populace into a sufficiently paranoid state and an otherworldly monster from beyond (a fairly shopworn device). Unlike 50s American sci-fi, however, and regardless of the presence of tough-guy Yank actor Brian Donlevy as the British Prof. Quatermass, everybody in a Hammer film can actually act. Whereas Peter Graves would be about as good as Americans may have expected in a genre film, in England, even the more "low-brow" entertainments often starred Shakespearean actors.
Even with its daffy monster, Quartermass is quite suspenseful. Its success, despite - or perhaps to due to - a tiny budget, led to a pair of sequels. 1957's Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space) has Quatermass suspicious of the government's new high-tech wonder food (perhaps because their goons kidnapped his lab assistant). If the first film bore a passing similarity to flesh-hungry monster movies like The Blob, the second film's menace may remind you more of Soylent Green.
Quatermass and the Pit
By the second sequel, Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years to Earth in the US, 1967), directed by Roy Ward Baker, we have an entirely new ages-old alien threat, as well as an entirely new Quatermass, this time played by the suitably professorial Andrew Keir. Not only do most Hammer fans prefer Keir's Quatermass to Donleavy's, the film is one of Hammer's most lavish productions. In this final Quatermass feature, a menace of extra-terrestrial origin is buried deep within the Earth, likely to do considerable damage if left to itself. Fortunately, one tweedy scientist stands between it and us. Less fortunately, the film was released theatrically in America in 1968, the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and was lost in the shuffle. Q and the Pit was truly epic concept sci-fi and it's a shame more fans weren't exposed to it at the time.
Between the first two Quatermass films came X - The Unknown, an efficient monster sci-fi from 1957. It featured another American, Dean Jagger, as Dr. Royston, basically a polite Quatermass. (Hammer must have thought the average 50s American would only suffer through a movie featuring a scientist as long as he wasn't played by an Englishman.) The Doc discovers that radioactive sludge is headed our way from 20,000 fathoms within the earth. Which sounds like something Quatermass would have said, come to think of it.
Soon after the second Quatermass film came another thriller - The Abominable Snowman (1957). Not only was this more in the gothic horror-fantasy wheelhouse, it was the first Hammer production to star Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars). The film is noteworthy for beginning a tradition at Hammer - familiar to any fan of Roger Corman - of producing an arresting, often lurid poster before making a film, sometimes even before commissioning a script! Commercial response to the film was good, but more tellingly, industry response to the poster which preceded it was so high that Hammer decided to proceed with more horror projects, and here is where Hammer's House would be built.
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