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The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films - Marcus Hearn

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Genre: History / Author: Marcus Hearn, Alan Barnes / Edition: 2 / Hardcover / 192 Pages / Book is published 2007-10-26 by Titan Books Ltd

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      11.11.2010 15:10
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      Grab some garlic and make sure all the windows are shut

      The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films was written by Alan Barnes & Marcus Hearn and my revised edition was published in 2007. I am a big fan of these illustrated coffee table film books (as my creaking bookshelves will testify) and although this one doesn't quite sit at the top table of ones I have it's pretty good and a nice purchase for anyone interested in Hammer films. While the book is probably not completely comprehensive (it tends to focus more on the colour Gothic era of Hammer more than some of the b/w thrillers they were responsible for) it does do a good job in conveying the broad sweep of the Hammer story. Inbetween a couple of pages of analysis and information about salient films, the book presents chapters that look at each stage of the Hammer story (Reanimation 1955-1964, Fresh Blood 1965-1969, Setting Son 1970-1975, and Life After Death 1975 Onwards) and allow the reader to learn how this small British studio breathed new life into the horror genre, influenced many future filmmakers, made stars of people like Peter Cushing, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, and then eventually fell victim to changing times and financial troubles, but still managed to throw out a few enjoyable oddities and even a couple of television shows before the coffin lid was slammed shut.

      The book contains nearly 500 photographs, clippings and posters and these are often very lavish and great fun. There are even posters from some Hammer projects that never went into production, including one where Peter Cushing appears to be a German SS officer from World War 2! I'm a bit foggy on certain areas of the Hammer story personally and there are still Hammer films I've never seen so I did find that I was able to pick up a lot of new information here and the text is very readable and interesting. It's certainly fun to wallow in images from and read about Hammer's heyday in the fifties and sixties when they reactivated monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein in their own unique way (Hammer were under strict orders from Universal not to ape their own vintage pictures too much) and produced some classic films that made liberal use of stage blood and buxom women in period costumes. The book has an extensive filmography at the back with a short synopsis of each Hammer film which is fun to browse and the reproductions of Hammer poster art is also very enjoyable. The many backstage photographs are excellent too although if I had a quibble it would be that Peter Cushing only gets a single page of his own as regards to a profile. Cushing is probably my favourite actor and I would have liked a bit more of him here.

      It is certainly fun though to take in the range of different projects Hammer undertook after their initial horror success with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 (a couple of decades on from the studio's first pictures). There was anachronistic dinosaur caper One Million Years BC, and the absolutely bonkers Legend of the Golden 7 Vampires, a Hong Kong/Hammer fusion that attempted to latch onto the early seventies kung fu craze. While Hammer films were considered rather bold in the fifties, by the seventies they were starting to look a bit twee and dated, especially in comparison to the American horror revival of the sixties and seventies that brought films like The Excorcist, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They even faced competition from home with Amicus, a British studio that carved out a niche with contemporary horror anthology films laced with famous guest stars. What is particularly interesting is to read about how Hammer tried various gimmicks to try and breathe new life into the films. These included Dracula A.D 1972 which had Christopher Lee in swinging seventies bell bottomed London and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a fairly self-explanatory but surprisingly enjoyable later picture.

      You can be reminded too that Hammer made an excellent version of The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in 1958 and produced a slew of television comedy spin-off films in the seventies including three On the Buses films and a feature length version of Man About the House with Richard O'Sullivan, George & Mildred and the gang! Although they made some varied and superb films, Hammer did tend to, er, hammer something into the ground with repeated follow-ups if they had a success. So One Million Years BC led to When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Creatures the World Forgot and they made so many Dracula films they sort of ended up like the Police Academy series where you could barely keep track of them as the law of diminishing returns inevitably played out. At their best though Hammer made some very stylish horror films and some great little pictures like The Abominable Snowman with Peter Cushing in the fifties and Quatermass and the Pit in the sixties.

      There is a sub-section on the women of Hammer and also some interesting stuff about the limited budgets Hammer crews always had to work under. Basically, a location had to be within walking distance of the studio! You could perhaps say there is too much on the finances of the studio and its long drawn out demise but personally I found a lot of this particularly interesting. It's sad really to think we had this flourishing home grown studio making popular and fun films (something the British film industry has always been criticised for not doing in recent times) and yet it gradually faded away as its backers and finances dwindled and the competition become more and more difficult to compete with. It's interesting too that Hammer briefly rose from the ashes to produce two television shows in the eighties in Hammer House of Horror and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. These two shows are a little forgotten today (especially Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense) but are great fun and include many famous guest stars, everyone from Peter Cushing to Dirk Benedict to Diana Dors.

      The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films is a lot of fun on the whole with a good range of stills, photographs and promotional art from the legendary studio and its long history. The text is well written too and I did find I picked up some new things from the book and always found it enjoyable and frequently engrossing to delve into and flip through. If you have a weakness for these big coffee table film books and are a fan of Hammer then this is well worth considering if you can find it at a good price.

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        11.09.2008 00:54
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        The story or the Hammer studios

        For anyone of a certain age who can remember the British films of the 60's and 70's one British film studio above all others will stand out... Hammer. It could be argued that in this period of turbulence for the British film industry threatened as it was by the onslaught of American imports Hammer Studios almost single handedly kept the British Film industry alive and brought a distinct type of British film to an international audience.

        The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes gives us a fascinating account of how the Hammer studios began in the pre-war era and how they grew to become the leading Horror film makers in the 60's before their demise in the mid 70's . Using a clear style alongside some well chosen photos and film stills the story of Hammer Studios and some of its most colourful characters is told in way that can be appreciated by the casual reader or the more serious film fan.

        As soon as you see this book you know you're in for a treat, the front cover alludes to the heyday of Hammer featuring the majestic Christopher Lee (better known now for Saruman in Lord of the Rings) in his iconic role as Dracula.

        The book tells the story in chronological order. The first section covers the period 1934-1954 and gives us a potted history of how the studio was set up and the kind of films it was making in its early days ranging form comedies to low budget dramas made to fill the 'home made' quota required by film distributors imposed on it by government in order to try and safeguard the British film studios against the might of Hollywood imports.

        The second section of the book details the breakthrough period for Hammer 1954-1964 where it emerged as the most important British studio of its time. This period was kicked off with the success of the first film adaptation of sci-fi classic 'The Quatermass Experiment' (1954), which defined the studios role in the promotion of the sci-fi/Horror genre, this reputation was confirmed by the follow films 'X The Unknown' (1956), 'Quatermass 2' (1956) and leads us on to the classic era of horror films such as 'Curse of Frankenstein'(1957) and 'Dracula' (1958).

        These films were huge at the box office and broke Hammer in to the lucrative US market.This part of the book includes mini biographies of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the studio's favourite actors who became household names both at home and abroad. Also included are detailed descriptions of all the major films that were released in this period illustrated with some excellent photos and film stills. Reading this section I was reminded of how many classic films Hammer produced at this time as well as the ones mentioned above Hammer also had to their credit 'The Hound Of the Baskervilles'(1958), 'The Mummy'(1959), 'The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll' (1960), 'The Curse Of the Werewolf' (1960) all starring some great british actors like Raymond Massey, Oliver Reed and Stanley Baxter. An nice added detail to the film notes are reproduction of the original colour film posters and interesting facts about the special effects and the set design as well a profile of some of the main directors and behind the camera crew.

        Although the blood and gore on evidence in Hammer films is not on the same level as that of in films today Hammer horror films did genuinely shock audiences in a way today's 'production line' slasher movies fail to do. At a time when the bulk of cinema was still in black and white the appearance of Technicolor and with it the ability to show vibrant red blood on the screen provoked quite a reaction. But apart from use of scary imagery the films also tested the bounds of public decency by their mixture of eroticism and horror. This had only been hinted at in the earlier incarnations of the horror genre and however good Bela Lugosi was as Dracula in the classic 1930's films he did not have the eroticism of Lee's interpretation as he bites his way through a procession of scantily clad British/European starlets. The book does its best to tell this aspect of the story and even devotes one section in praise of the young actresses who made their careers out of often bearing their bosom in preparation of the ravages of 'Lord of the Vampires'.

        Hammer managed to produce quality films with high production values all on a very modest budget this meant that they had to restrict expenditure whenever they could and one saving was made on the use of locations. A section of the book explores this issue by highlighting the importance of Bray Studios housed in a seventeenth century mansion Down Place near Winsdor. This old mansion would provide many of the interiors and exterior for the classic Hammer films thus saving on hiring expensive locations and transporting equipment and people around. The house was customised to suit the demands of Hammer productions and served the company well between 1951 and 1961.

        The third section covers 1965-1969 which for many saw some of the best and some of the worst offering of the studio. The Dracula franchise was now becoming tired with such sequels as 'Dracula Prince Of Darkness' (1965) and 'Dracula Has Risen From The Grave' (1968) but some classics were also made such as 'She' (1964) starring ex Bond girl Ursula Andress, 'The Devil Rides Out' (1968), 'The Nanny' (1965) starring Hollywood legend Bette Davis and of course the fantastically cheesy stone age romp One Million Years BC starring Raquel Welsh in her iconic furry bikini. Again the book provided excellent notes and photos of all these films and it includes special features on the 'Hammer Glamour' telling a little more about the actresses that over the years have featured in hammer films including Diana Dors, Stefani Powers, and Shirley Eaton...

        The Final part of the book covers the end of Hammer the period 1970-1975. As the new decade dawned horror films were pushing boundaries of taste further and reflecting the more liberal attitudes that saw film pornography being elevated to 'art house' cinema Hammer's output also began to reflected this liberalization with films such as 'The Vampire Lovers' (1970) and 'Countess Dracula' (1971) both starring another Hammer favourite Ingrid Pitt as the sexy vampire. Heaving bosoms gave way to nudity, increasingly sensationalist plots and more often than not a little 'girl on girl' action began to become standard for films like 'Lust For A Vampire'(1971), 'Blood From The Mummy's Tomb'(1971) and 'Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde' (1971) all accompanied by appropriately lurid film posters.

        Many people will have heard of Hammer because of its re-invention of the horror genre with such films as Dracula and Frankenstein but many will also be surprised to hear that the other main output of the studio in that period was comedy including some film spin offs of hugely successful TV sit coms in 'Man About The House' and 'On The Buses'. To be fair these films were never as good as the original TV series and in the case of 'On the Buses' that is saying very little and they do signal the end of the quality output that had made Hammer famous. The emergence of video tape and with it the video nasties eventually sealed Hammer's fate as a major horror studio although it did manage to re-invent itself once again on TV as Hammer House Of Horror which brought the old hammer magic to the small screen..

        At the back this book also includes a very useful alphabetical filmography for the more serious film fanatic.

        Overall this is a great reference book that you can read from cover to cover too. The detail is enough to feel that you have a good insight into the Hammer story without it becoming an academic exercise. The detailed film descriptions, plot profiles and character/actor outlines will mean that you will be constantly dipping in to the book. The one drawback which this book as in common with most 'authorised' stories is that while much is gained by access to information and interviews with all the leading people, it is a sanitised version of events and some of the backroom gossip and tensions might not have been much highlighted. Despite this I found it a fascinating read and I would recommend it for anyone who has a love of those classic Hammer films.

        The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films (Hardcover) by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes (192 pages published by Titan Books Ltd ISBN-10: 1845761855
        ISBN-13: 978-1845761851) is available from Amazon.UK for £12.49 (at the time this review was written)

        Highly Recommended.

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      • Product Details

        Fifty years ago, Hammer Films released their very first horror movie, The Quatermass Xperiment. The now-legendary British company went on to make such classics as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (and their many sequels), making international stars out of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, changing the face of horror cinema, and inspiring a generation of Hollywood filmmakers, including the likes of George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton. Now, for the first time, Hammer have given their active backing to an authorised history of the company, and have provided unlimited access to their archives. The Hammer Story provides a film-by-film dissection, dripping with rare promotional material and previously unpublished photographs.