Image default
Features Tales From the Vault

Tales From the Vault: An Introduction to Hammer Horror

If King Diamond and Type O Negative have taught us anything, it’s that Halloween is the most metal time of year. It’s also the season for horror films. However, with more options out there than any one person could possibly want to contemplate, what’s a horror-loving metal fan to do?

Rest easy, Vault Hunters – we’ve got your back on this one. Especially if you’re tired of the standard slasher fare and are looking for something different to sink your (fake plastic) teeth into.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the name Hammer was synonymous with gothic horror, and for a decent stretch of time, thanks to distribution partnerships with major US studios like Warner Brothers, they actually dominated the worldwide horror market. With a stable of actors that included Christopher Lee (who usually played the monster) and Peter Cushing (generally cast as the hero), the studio released a series of films featuring Frankenstein, the Mummy, and, perhaps most notably, Dracula that may not have quite matched the classic Universal films in terms of quality, but have endured as cult classics in certain circles all the same.

Here’s the thing about Hammer films, though. The majority of them, especially the ones made after 1967 or so, endure despite the fact that they aren’t very good. When the glut of horror films being released in the late 60s caused some of their major sources of funding to dry up, the plots of their films started getting progressively more convoluted and/or ridiculous. And the more convoluted and/or ridiculous they got, the more appealing they became – to the point where some of the most revered Hammer films aren’t necessarily among the studio’s best. In that respect, they were kind of trailblazers, paving the way for studios like Troma and independent directors like Alex Chandon who have made their name on trashy, lo-fi cult films.

With a filmography as deep and …um…varied as that of Hammer Film Productions, it can be difficult for a newcomer to know exactly where to start. That’s where your friends here at the Vault come in. A few of us are Hammer fans, and we talked to a couple of our friends who are also Hammer fans, and we’ve come up with a list of our favorites for you to delve into this Halloween.

********

Since I can, I’m gong to claim “editor’s privilege” on this one and actually talk about two films, each of which represents a different aspect of Hammer’s cinematic personality once they started moving in a more (unintentionally) campy direction.

First up is the eighth and final film in their Dracula series, the wonderfully batshit The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. A joint production between Hammer and Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio, it’s notable in part for being the only film in the Dracula series where Christopher Lee doesn’t play the Count – John Forbes-Robertson handles the role instead.

It’s also a kung fu film. Seriously.

Actually, it’s a really difficult movie to take seriously, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. The plot (such as it is) involves Dracula travelling to rural China in the body of a Taoist monk/High Priest of the Seven Golden Vampires named Kah in order to restore the titular legendary vampires to their former glory. As luck would have it, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, who brings a strage sense of gravitas to the role in his final Hammer film) is also in China, giving a lecture at Chunking University about a mysterious cult of seven ‘Golden Vampires’ who have been terrorizing an unknown village for years. So far, not too crazy – but then we meet:

  • Van Helsing’s son, Leyland
  • Vanessa Buren, a wealthy young widow with a “mind of her own”
  • Hsi Ching, a student at Chunking University who just so happens to know the location of the village in Van Helsing’s lecture
  • Hsi Ching’s six brothers, all highly skilled martial artists with different weapon proficiencies
  • Hsi Ching’s sister Mai Kwei, also a skilled martial artist

This motely bunch sets out together for the unknown village, and several giant martial arts battles ensue between Hsi Ching and his siblings and hordes of kung fu vampire minions the Golden Vampires send to stop them from reaching the village. Of course, there are also a couple of love stories, including one with the obligatory tragic ending, before the final showdown between Van Helsing and Dracula, who has resumed his true form. The final battle is a bit anticlimactic, but the special effects as Dracula’s body decomposes (like you didn’t think Van Helsing would win?) are pretty rad.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the early 70s Hammer started experimenting with more explicit fare, starting with The Karnstein Trilogy, a series of ‘lesbian vampire’ films based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871-72 serialized novella Carmilla. The first film in the series, The Vampire Lovers, is easily the best, thanks to largely Ingrid Pitt’s lead performance as Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla Karnstein.

Pitt is easily one of the more fascinating people in Hammer’s history. She may be more familiar to fans of British horror from her appearance in British Lion’s The Wicker Man, but she earned her cult status primarily as a result of her appearances in The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, where she played the Erzsebet Báthory-inspired main character. Metal fans likely know Pitt from her narration on Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty and the Beast, which she performed in the guise of her Countess Dracula character. Born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw, Poland in 1937, she survived imprisonment in the Stutthof concentration camp during WWII. She later married an American G.I. named Pitt and moved to the US, and then found her way to acting after that marriage failed. Prior to appearing in her first Hammer film, she made her debut in a small role in Dr. Zhivago, starred opposite Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare, and made appearances in two separate Doctor Who serials.

But back to The Vampire Lovers…in some ways, the plot is about what you would expect, and kind of mirrors the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which is interesting, given that Stoker’s novel came out about 25 years after Carmilla). But instead of Vlad stalking Lucy and Mina and brainwashing Renfield, it’s Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla stalking Laura and Emma and brainwashing Mademoiselle Perrodot (played by future Dynasty actress Kate O’Mara). Peter Cushing doesn’t play Van Helsing in this one, but instead appears as General Spielsdorf, who does (of course) play a vital role in Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla’s demise. The closing scene of this one is pretty rad as well, even thought it does completely rip off the closing scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The most remarkable thing about The Vampire Lovers, though, is how thoroughly unerotic it is, even thought it has what was supposedly the most explicit lesbian scene ever filmed at the time between Pitt’s character and Emma, played by Madeline Smith. Part of the reason for that is how silly and contrived the big seduction scene actually is, but Pitt and Smith also really had no chemistry whatsoever. To be fair, some of that could have been the result of the censorship standards of the time. However, Smith, despite certainly being attractive and impressively…erm…”equipped,” played Emma with a wide-eyed naiveté that really didn’t help sell the scene. Still, if one is curious about Pitt’s Hammer films, The Vampire Lovers is the way to go.

********

Mark Addington (Fólkvangr Records): I am just going to preface this by saying that I have been watching horror movies my entire life. Even as a kid I was drawn to the eerie, the strange, the macabre… and the humorous. So if you asked me what my favorite HORROR movie is, I would probably pick the 1996 American classic Scream. Yes, I know is really more of a dark comedy, but it’s my pick and if you want to fight about it we can.

I didn’t discover the world of Hammer Horror until my late teens, but something about the overall ham-handedness of it all drew me in. I love a bit of overly-done drama and theatrics and even though not every Hammer film was meant to be cheesy, the passage of time has made them so and that is how I approach and enjoy them. I can’t say a Hammer film has ever scared me, but they have made me smile and given me plenty of good times.

And now on to our featured presentation… 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula. This is one of many great Christopher Lee as Dracula films. He wasn’t my first Dracula, hell he wasn’t even my second, third, fourth, fifth… maybe more like my 9th or 10th Dracula… but he puts in the work and I love it. In Taste the Blood of Dracula, a few bored with life because they are so privileged English gents raise Dracula from the dead, and in the process manage to kill one of his servants. Now you may not immediately think of Dracula as being a sentimental creature, but I guess when you live for long periods of time (between numerous deaths and resurrections) you probably know first hand that good servants are hard to find and even harder to replace. With the death of Lord Courtley, Dracula gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “blood feud” and vows to kill the gentlemen… by using their own children! What else would you expect from Saruman? Some of the highlights include but are not limited to the foppish brothel owner, tons of 70’s boobs, and a snake handling belly dancer. All those things were in the same scene? Oh yeah, sorry.

Is it Christopher Lee’s best Dracula film? Maybe not. Is it Christopher Lee’s best Dracula film from 1970? Again, maybe not (there were four in total that year). Would I sell my soul to the devil for this film? I think so! It’s campy, it’s got some great sets (I am not talking about the boobs, but also maybe I am), and most of all it’s a fun watch and that’s all I ever really ask for anyway.

Official rating: 9.5 goblets of reconstituted Dracula blood (from powdered concentrate) out of 10.

Bryan Coffey (Editor-in-Chief): To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d even seen a Hammer film when Clayton first proposed the idea for this article. But I realized I had actually watched a fair share of them during my youth after going through their collection. Specifically, I remembered that although my parents never allowed me to watch scary movies, the rule didn’t apply to my grandmother.

You see, my grandparents owned a small farm in Rushville, and I would visit several times a year because we lived out-of-state. My grandma would try her best to entertain a boy around 7-9 years of age on a farm in the middle of nowhere, but there was only so much she could do. Often times, she would let me watch television unsupervised while she worked in the kitchen or did various things around the farm. When you were channel surfing and your choices were either the news, Dallas, or a movie about a blood sucking vampire, the decision was pretty easy. This began a love of horror films (and a healthy fear of the dark) that has continued to this day.

After realizing that I was pretty familiar with the Hammer collection, settling on one movie was a bit daunting. The Dracula films were the ones that I remembered best with 1970’s Scars of Dracula (Directed by  Roy Ward Baker) really standing out in my memory. It doesn’t have the most engrossing story, but it is does contain several scenes that make it memorable, which I’ll touch on later. The film starred Christopher Lee as the titular character. Lee had received notoriety after starring in several Hammer films, but was not keen on returning to the role. Because of this, the film was originally written as a standalone movie for John Forbes-Robertson to take over Count duties. After Hammer beefed up the dialogue (and probably offered him more money), Lee decided to return. Forbes-Robertson would later get his chance at the role with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Because of the reboot/standalone nature of the film, Scars of Dracula doesn’t follow the same continuity as the earlier films.

The story is pretty simple and mirrors similar ones from the previous Dracula films. Someone wanders into Dracula’s castle and has to stay the night, Dracula appears as a gracious and charming host, Dracula imprisons them, someone attempts a rescue, etc.. Like I mentioned before, although the movie is “Dracula by numbers,” there are few scenes that make it stand out from the others. The first is the method in which they resurrect the Count; it basically entails a vampire bat vomiting blood on his ashes (ready mix Dracula). Another one is the brutal way in which he handles the townsfolk’s family when the men attempt to burn down his castle. But the moment that will forever be etched in my memory is the scene of Dracula scaling the castle wall to leave his crypt. I found this seriously unnerving as a child, and watching it again for the first time in 35 years still gave me chills. Unfortunately, this film also wins the award for dumbest way for Dracula to meet his demise, but I won’t spoil that for you.

All-in-all for the Halloween season, I think most of Hammer’s collection make enjoyable viewing. But if you’re a big fan of old Vlad, you can’t go wrong with Scars of Dracula.

Nathan Erdel (Actor/Writer/Director): While it may not be at the top of everyone’s list of favorite Hammer Horror Films, 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, embodies what I love most about Britain’s answer to the Universal Studios Classic Monsters. The film is almost a Frankenstein’s monster itself, built upon different, disparate elements from the Hammer Horror filmography: blood flows, breasts heave, and a young, headstrong hero battles a terrible monster in the hopes of saving a buxom lass from a fate worse than death. In short, it’s the perfect Hammer movie.

The film centers on a young scientist (Shane Briant), imprisoned on charges of practicing sorcery, who, once imprisoned in an asylum, finds that another inmate, Dr. Carl Victor (Peter Cushing) seems to be running the madhouse by blackmailing the sanatorium’ s director. It doesn’t take much for the young science to discover that Dr. Victor is actually Baron Frankenstein, still toiling away at his blasphemous life’s work. Soon, the two are working together to create a new monster from the body of an inmate and the hands of a sculptor. It is not long before the monster (David Prowse) is loose and creating havoc in the asylum.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell has its detractors, and, in some ways, it does fall a bit short from the quality of most Hammer Films. Still, the film features another wonderful performance by Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein, along with a serviceable turn by Prowse (mainly known as the physical performer behind Darth Vader) as the titular monster. The film also features wonderful scenic design, some great blood and grue, and good-to-decent performances from its supporting players. Cinephiles looking for the highest quality Hammer films may be disappointment, but lovers of monsters, mayhem, shocks, and schlock could do a lot worse than Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell.

I will offer a small cheat: for the most bang for your buck, track down Hammer’s vastly underrated anthology series Hammer’s House of Horrors. Only Tales from the Darkside matches it for pure, macabre thrills.

Ari Miller (Red River Family Records): Stolen Face is one of the Hammer Films that continue to haunt me. This disturbing Frankenstein-esque film sits just outside of its massive horror portfolio.

Dr. Ritter, a plastic surgeon in London, operates on the less fortunate. He provides reconstructive surgery pro bono on disfigured inmates to give them a second chance for a better life outside of prison. On a much needed vacation, Dr. Ritter falls in love with an engaged American woman named Alice. He declares his love, but the next morning she is gone. Distraught and unable to have Alice, he comes up with the romantic idea of reconstructing the face of a female inmate named Lily to match Alice’s and marry her. No matter whose face she wears, Lily has a very different, sinister personality.

I won’t spoil the ending, or lack thereof. We are left to use our imagination in order to tie up the loose ends.

Some of the most horrifying yet fascinating films for me are those with disfigured characters. Add in reconstructive surgery and I’m done for. I still have to watch Eyes Without a Face through my fingers.

Writing this has reminded me of the real story of Carl Tanzler, also known as Count Carl von Cosel, a German-born bacteriologist in Florida. He developed an obsession for a tuberculosis patient, Elena “Helen” Milagro de Hoyos. He showered her with gifts and professed his love while attempting to cure her. There is no evidence that his affection was reciprocated.

His obsession continued after her death from the disease. In 1933, almost two years after her death, Tanzler removed Hoyos’s decomposing body from its tomb, and carried it home in a toy wagon. Tanzler attached the corpse’s bones together with wire and fitted the face with glass eyes. As the skin of the corpse decomposed, he replaced it with silk cloth soaked in wax. As the hair fell out of the decomposing scalp, Tanzler fashioned a wig for her. He filled the corpse’s abdominal and chest cavity with rags to keep the original form.

Tanzler lived with the corpse at his home for seven years until its discovery by Hoyos’s relatives and authorities in 1940.

Related posts

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.