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The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films - Marcus Hearn
Member Name: Mauri
The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films - Marcus Hearn
Date: 11/09/08, updated on 04/06/09 (327 review reads)
Advantages: Detailed and well presented
Disadvantages: One sided view
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)
Summary: The story or the Hammer studios
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