A quick overview /tribute.
November 1934; 83 years ago,
In November 1934 comedian William Hinds, founded Hammer Productions Ltd. at Imperial House, Regent Street, London. The company name came from Hinds‘ stage name, Will Hammer, which he had taken from the area of London in which he lived, Hammersmith.
Their first film was THE PUBLIC LIFE OF HENRY THE NINTH (released in 1935). The title references the hugely popular Alexander Korda film THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1934). Sadly this 60 minute quota quickie ,is a lost film .
In May ,1935 Enrique Carreras and Hinds co founded Exclusive Films Distributors , moving offices to Wardour Street. This would allow them to handle distribution of their own films and that of others.
Hammer then took it’s first step into the genre that it would be best known for.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MARY CELESTE (aka PHANTOM SHIP in the U.S.) starred Bela Lugosi .Inspired by an actual mystery from 1872, Lugosi plays a character who goes mad (naturally). The American print is 18 minutes shorter , but is thought to be the only version still extant .
Hammer also made SONG OF FREEDOM (1936), starring the great Paul Robeson , but these two films, with which Hammer hoped to enter the lucrative U.S. market ,were more expensive ,and so the studio went back to program quickies like the caper film THE BANK MESSENGER MYSTERY (1936) and the musical comedy SPORTING LOVE (1937,based upon a 1934 stage show of the same name that ran 300 performances in 1934).
In late 1937, Hammer Films declared bankruptcy ,but Exclusive continued distribution of other filmmakers’ product .
After WWII, Hammer
resumed production again with more second features like DEATH IN HIGH HEELS
They licensed popular radio dramas and turned them into popular features ,such as The Adventures of PC 49 and Dick Barton.
In 1951, they made a deal with American distributor Lippert, who distributed the films in the U.S. ,while supplying an American star . This was both an inexpensive way for Lippert to get product, while giving the British studio exposure in the U.S. and a star name to differentiate their product from other British B films.
In 1955, they made a deal to adapt the hugely popular television serial THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT
( first aired in 1953). To emphasis the “x” rating , Hammer
dropped the “e” ,releasing the film as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.
The film was a huge hit, and led Hammer
to start making more films in the science fiction/horror genre . The studio had no love for the market, and indeed ,had they discovered they could make successful musicals, they would have produced them.
ROOM TO LET (1950)- not a musical.
Realizing that Frankenstein was in the public domain , they hired popular tv actor Peter Cushing, plus a tall relatively unknown jobbing actor named Christopher Lee (when popular Bernard Bresslaw asked for too much money) ,and lighting struck, bringing to life the monster we now know as Hammer Films to an international market with their signature film, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ( 1957).
Their place in cinema history was sealed the following year when they paired the Cushing with Lee ,giving the latter the title role in DRACULA /HORROR OF DRACULA(1958).
Throughout the 1960s, Hammer was the studio for horror. Though making films in other genres ,including mysteries and swashbucklers, the staple was supplying new thrills to audiences .
In the 1970s, tastes began to change , and Hammer tried to keep up, while still trying to produce the type of film that had made them popular. It was a near impossible task, but Hammer had some successes ,and indeed , produced some of their finest films during this period.
With British film production going through one of it’s periodic dry periods, as well as losing their American distribution deals, Hammer had a harder time producing films. They turned to television once again ,producing comedies that turned out to be some of the biggest hits in the U.K. that the studio had ever produced. However, they didn’t travel well to overseas markets.
The studio tried co productions with The Shaw Brothers, who were producing the very popular martial arts films of the period. What the British filmmakers discovered was was how primitive the conditions were for their style of film making ( it was difficult to record live sound,due to studios with tin roofs!) ,and after two films , the very disappointing SHATTER as well as the interesting LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES ,they once again looked to other sources of finance (both filmed in 1974 , but given very spotty releases).
Hammer made another big budget film thanks to German investors and EMI ,adapting Dennis Wheatley‘s TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976) . Once again ,bringing in a major Hollywood actor(Richard Widmark,who was not happy with the production), it is an ugly looking production , the most notable exception being it introducing the world to Nastassja Kinski (who had , though ,already a career in modeling as well as appearing prior in Wm Wenders’ THE WRONG MOVE ,1975). The ending of this film leaves most people confused and /or angry.
A lot of other productions were announced but never made ( Kali: The Devil Bride of Dracula ; Nessie ),until the 1979 remake of the 1938 Hitchcock film, THE LADY VANISHES.
Once again, some major Hollywood stars were brought in (Elliot Gould,Cybil Shepherd) as well as Angela Lansbury and Herbert Lom . The film , a costly £2.5 million ( raised thanks to a deal with Rank ) , the film was given mixed reviews, but did decently at the box office. However, it was not enough to save the studio . and it ceased theatrical film production ,being taken over by Roy Skeggs & Brian Lawrence.
Hammer ‘s name still had viability, and ,in conjunction with ITC (as well as Skeggs/Lawrence‘s own Cinema Arts), HAMMER’S HOUSE OF HORRORS produced 13 53 minute episodes for television in 1980. This was not Hammer‘s first attempt at television, having produced a failed tv pilot for Columbia in 1958, TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN , as well as the 1968 17 episodes series JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN .
The follow up , HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY & SUSPENSE in 1984 ,were longer (70 minutes ) but only 13 episodes were made, and time slots shifted so audiences who would have enjoyed them had a hard time finding it, and so it was considered a failure.
It seemed Hammer only existed now in licensing productions for television airings, as well as leasing to the growing cable television market as well as home video.
Over the next few decades, rumors kept surfacing that Hammer was returning in some form or another, to produce direct to video product or medium budget theatrical or
Finally , Big Brother creator John De Mol acquired the assets of Hammer, including the name ,and re-launched the studio under CEO Simon Oakes in 2007.
Their initial production got a lot of press , as it premiered as a multi part series on Myspace . Called BEYOND THE RAVE (oddly referencing rival Amicus ‘ studios final anthology horror film, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, 1973), this 2008 production was released in twenty four minute installments. The production ,however, was trashed by many fans of the studio, who found the characters poorly written ,with many only introduced just to be killed off by the vampires of the tale.
BEYOND THE RAVE was released to DVD ,with extras including an excised scene featuring Ingrid Pitt (who had starred in Hammer‘s VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and COUNTESS DRACULA (1971).
In 2008 , Hammer took part in a Swedish -Irish-UK co-production called
WAKE WOOD. The film is a gruesome and dark supernatural thriller that often recalls THE WICKER MAN(1973) . Indeed , it would have been a worthier sequel to that classic than the very disappointing THE WICKER TREE (2011).
Sadly, WAKE WOOD sat for three years ,getting only a token release in four theatres before being dumped onto DVD. It is a superlative horror film that deserves to be better known.
In 2009 ,Hammer tried a return to the psychological thrillers that they had made in the 1960s, filming THE RESIDENT in New York City and New Mexico. Starring Hillary Swank, it also was Christopher Lee‘s first Hammer film since TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER 36 years earlier. The film was a slick production, but sat on a shelf for two years, again getting a token theatrical release before it’s DVD release.
s next film, however, showed that the studio was back on track . “Låt den rätte komma in “ by John Ajvide Linqvist was a very dark but original vampire novel about 12 year old Oskar meets a centuries old vampire Eli,who looks like a child . Set in the early 1980s, the novel explores loneliness,pedophilia,mutilation, divorce ,all while dealing with some really nasty murders. Translated into several languages, the book was first adapted into a Swedish film in 2008,directed with great economy and skill by Tomas Alfredson (who later directed the 2011 British film TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY).
Hammer based their screenplay more along the Swedish film adaptation, calling it LET ME IN . They had acquired the English language rights before the Swedish film had even seen release ,and even offered it’s director the chance to do the English language version. When he declined, Hammer signed on writer director Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD,2008).
The setting was moved to New Mexico , and a few more changes were made to the adaptation ( I will let you debate which version is better). Filmed in late 2009, the final budget was $20 million (the shrieks from the grave you may be hearing is probably Sir Michael Carreras, who produced most of his films for relatively low budgets).
Released in 2010 to praise (though some did complain it either followed the Swedish film either too much or too little!),it earned $12 million in the U.S. and Canada alone, accruing $24 million world wide. (Oddly,
It was listed as one of the ten biggest bombs of 2010!). Blu Ray ,DVD, and cable sales in 2011 pushed the film into a modest profit.
Finally, in 2012, Hammer had a well deserved hit in their 2012 adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic ghost story , THE WOMAN IN BLACK. The 1983 novel was adapted into a stage play in 1987, and is the second longest running West End Play in history (right after THE MOUSETRAP).
Nigel Kneale did a superlative adaptation for ITV television in 1989 ,and there have been at least two radio adaptations.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman did a superior adaptation of the story ,with star Daniel Radcliffe supported by a top notch team both in front of and off camera, making this one of the most satisfying cinematic ghost stories in quite some time. Wisely, they made the film in the U.K.,the true home of Hammer.
Originally conceived as a 3-D film, this idea was wisely scrapped (the dark cinematography would have made this a difficult problem), it was shot in 2010 on a modest budget of $15 million.
During it’s opening weekend in the US. , it earned $20 million ,making it the highest U.S. grossing opening in Hammer‘s history(released in the U.S. by CBS Films). The film, which garnered exceptionally positive reviews, eventually earned $127 Million world wide. DVD & Blu Ray sales later that year added to the coffers.
Ghosts seemed good for their coffers, so Hammer two years later produced THE QUIET ONES. Produced on a low budget ,again in the U.K., the film got mixed reviews but made $8 million in the U.S. ,with a world wide gross of $17 million for distributor Lionsgate.
THE WOMEN IN BLACK II: ANGEL OF DEATH (2015) was a major disappointment when it was released .While costing about the same amount ( $15 million) ,it took in a third of the box office that the original had made ,perhaps due to it being only a pale ghost to the original film.
This time, the story is set in 1941(35 years after events of the first film), and uses the actual historical event of evacuating children from London into the farther reaches of the country to avoid German bombings. Unfortunately, the village and in particular the home this first group of children are housed is the home haunted by the title character.
Whereas the scares built naturally and suspensefully in the 2012 film, the remake seems to just drag out the references from the first films (toys springing to activity in the presence of the spirit) but without any attempt at making it emotionally involving. Indeed, they should have studied THE INNOCENTS (1961) or the studio’s own LET ME IN to see how to work children and loss into an horror film. Several jump scares seemed to have been added later to try and make it more frightening, but they seem at odds with the film itself.
In the meantime, Hammer
has expanded to include live stage productions, starting in 2012 with a well reviewed production of Henry James
‘ TURN OF THE SCREW
as well as Hallowe’en events like Hammer House of Horror Live : The Soulless Ones
in 2017 .
Hammer is still a viable production company with hopefully many more frights to come.
I end this quick overview ,though , with a mystery, that perhaps P.C. 49 might be able to solve
In 2012 Hammer Films /Exclusive Media, acquired the rights to make a film about the Winchester Mystery House. ImaginationDesign Works & Nine/8 Entertainment were co- producers. The film got a big boost when Helen Mirren signed on to appear as Sarah Winchester. Sarah Winchester believed that she was haunted by the spirits of those that died from the firearms manufactured by her family firm ,and so ,from 1884 until she died in 1922, work continued on the strange house built for spirits.
However, when the $3.5 million dollar film WINCHESTER was finally released in 2018 to reviews that were mostly bad, Hammer‘s name is no where on the publicity material. Did it vanish like a ghost or did the studio simply step away? The film still managed to scare up over 11 times its production cost, so you would think they would want their name on it.
Mysteries still come from the House of Hammer.
Hopefully, the next film that goes into production with the Hammer Banner wears it proudly and is embraced by fans and the general public alike .
-Kevin G Shinnick
” How’s that grab ya ? “