Three Hammer Films I Love
Tis the season to be scary.
Getting into horror movies as a kid meant that there were a lot of movies that I wasn’t allowed to watch at such a young age. While I would have to wait years to finally see those stone-cold classics such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Halloween, there were another bunch of films that alluded me for the longest time: the movies of Hammer Films. Renowned in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the major house of British horror, these films have attained cult status today, and though they may no longer have the power to scare (though their trailblazing use of violence and gore certainly would have spooked me as a kid), they remain some of my favorite movies in the genre. In the spirit of Halloween, here are three Hammer horrors worthy of appreciation.
The Gorgon (1964) – Starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee
It’s no secret that Hammer relied on a formula; one which involved the reusing and repurposing of sets and costumes and – crucially – talent. The studio created an informal repertory company of performers to take part in each new horrific outing, and each player had their own designated parts. More often than not, it was Christopher Lee who was menacing the film’s beautiful lead and Peter Cushing as the derring-do hero, leaping across tables and waving crucifixes to vanquish the evil. One of the masterstrokes of The Gorgon, however, is that the two actors find their positions reversed. The film is set in the small town of Vandorf under siege from the terrifying titular creature whose very gaze can turn you to stone.
For a studio whose entire output was arguably outré, The Gorgon is certainly one of the most extreme, but it is also what makes it such an interesting film. The central creature – born not from the pages of Gothic text like Hammer’s ever profitable Frankenstein or Dracula but instead from Greek legend – plays a relatively small role in the film; its midsection given over to the doomed romance between Paul Heitz (played by Shakespearean thespian Richard Pasco) who has arrived in Vendorf to investigate the deaths of his brother and his father, and the tragic Carla Hoffman (Hammer's staple powerhouse Barbra Shelley). Carla’s secret and the control which her employer, Cushing’s cold and callous Dr. Namaroff, holds over her will put the young lovers on a collision course with disaster. As Professor Meister, the film’s de facto Van Helsing stand-in, Christopher Lee may be a bit too young to labor under his bushy grey wig and mustache, but his tense standoff with Cushing is a true highlight.
It is worth mentioning that several other Hammer classics also benefit from Cushing and Lee playing against type. As the mercurial Baron Frankenstein, Cushing always delights, but he is at his savage best in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), just as Lee was seldom better than when (literally) fighting for the side of the angels in The Devil Rides Out (1969) based on the occult thriller by Dennis Wheatley. Both films are undoubtedly some of Hammer’s crowning achievements.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966) – Starring André Morell and John Carson
Like The Gorgon, The Plague of the Zombies was not based on any pre-existing story, but this tale of voodoo on the Cornish coast has its roots in such pillars of the Gothic genre as Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle. Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), suspicious after a number of villagers succumb to illness in his village, engages the services of his former mentor, Sir James Forbes (André Morell), to investigate. In doing so, the two men discover skullduggery afoot in the village’s disused tin mine and a link to the powerful squire (John Carson) who owns the land. Equal parts baroque horror and subtle mystery, The Plague of the Zombies is made all the more special when one considers that it predates the revolutionary work of filmmaker George Romero whose Night of the Living Dead (1968) would forever change the public perception of zombies…not to mention the horror genre as we know it.
The titular menace of the film are interestingly poised somewhere between the creatures of voodoo myth and the cannibalistic abominations of Romero’s films, but the sensationalist elements are grounded in reality when a pro like André Morell is delivering the exposition. Morell was one of Hammer’s best performers (perhaps best remembered as an ideal Watson opposite Cushing’s Holmes in their 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles) and it is fun to see him take the lead here as investigator. But every intrepid hero is only as good as his adversary, and John Carson is excellent as the smug Squire Hamilton, dabbling in black magic and exploiting his voodoo powers in the old tine mine. Throughout all of Hammer’s films there is a strong vein of class consciousness, but nowhere is that subtext plainer than in Plague of the Zombies as the wealthy landowner literally enslaves the lower-class and exploits them for his own financial gain. It is a powerfully resonant theme elevating the film well beyond its B-movie status. The Plague of the Zombies was always designed to fit the bottom half of a double-bill with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but there is no doubt that this film is the superior of the two.
Twins of Evil (1971) – Starring Mary & Madeline Collinson and Peter Cushing
By the early 1970s, Hammer Films were struggling to keep pace with the rapidly-evolving horror genre. In comparison to the powerful and brutal films produced in America and Europe, the Gothic horrors of Hammer were beginning to appear quaint. Relaxing censorship standards allowed the British studio to exploit hitherto unbroken ground and, in 1970, Hammer released The Vampire Lovers, a loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a tale of lesbian vampire Carmilla Karnstein. Within a year, Hammer had appended two sequels to the film running the proposed franchise into the ground. Nevertheless, Twins of Evil, the third and final film in the series (though barely connected to the previous two and set at least a century earlier) is actually one of Hammer’s most accomplished later-day efforts. Starring as twins Maria and Frieda are real life twins Mary and Madeline Collinson who are sent to live with their puritanical uncle, Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing). In an act of rebellion, Frieda will fall under the spell of Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) whose thirst for blood will spell disaster for all.
Try as it might to conform to the sleazy standard of its predecessors, Twins of Evil cannot help but feel more prestigious and certainly more epic than many late Hammer films. Director John Hough, veteran of television’s The Avengers brings a breezy adventure attitude to the movie, complemented immeasurably by a pounding score by Henry Robertson; the theme of which would not have sounded out of place in a ‘70s Western. All this gloss highlights an incredible central performance from Cushing whose Gustav Weil is surely one of the most repugnant characters the actor was ever asked to play. Yet in Cushing’s capable hands, the character is never reduced to caricature level which lends real gravitas to the nightly witch hunts in which Weil and his comrades participate. Twins of Evil may not be supreme Hammer material, but at a time when the studio was desperate to evolve, it is a film that confirms no one did Gothic horror better than Hammer Films.