Monster Memories by Dominic O’Brien

It seems that with this weekend (August 11th) fast approaching, the lovely gents here at Classic Horror Campaign are gearing up for their Frighten Brighton Festival. All of this talk about classic horror has begun to make one reminisce about first Hammer Horror experiences. Maybe you would like to reminisce with me?

It’s clear Hammer films have had a sudden resurgence for a new generation, gone are the days of the camp horror within Brit cinema and in with the brooding darkness. The remake of The Woman In Black, having received critical acclaim, is once again bringing Hammer back to the horror foreground. For myself this only fans the flames of love that I have for the first ‘violent’ horrors watched as a young teen.

I can remember the first time I sat down to watch a Hammer horror. It was a double bill; the venue – my bedroom. The films were Horror Of Dracula and The Devil Rides Out. I was but a young film fan that was only just getting into horror at the time and there was a sense of excitement within the air. A friend had brought round these two (now genre defining pieces of Brit gothic horror from my childhood) on a worn old VHS. I truly believe that without viewing these features I might never have had such a passion towards Hammer Horror. .

My school friend and I (who was completely enamoured with Hammer at the time) were huddled around the small television in my room. He produced the two blood red video cases, each of which contained the visage of Christopher Lee. One was fanged and frightful; the other was bearded and mysterious. Since those days of spending hours in front of the TV after school, I too have grown passionate about Hammer’s back catalogue.

Curse of the Werewolf is still one of my absolute favourites. Not only because of the late great Oliver Reed (who also turns out a werewolf performance to rival Lon Chaney J), but also because of the effectively slow burn leading up to his transformation (again a great narrative structure also used within John Landis’ American Werewolf in London) as it is all characterisation and beautiful set design. Roy Ashton’s make-up effect for the werewolf is still brilliantly subtle and effective, almost owing more to the 1933 Werewolf of London look than Chaney’s Wolf Man look. The story still grips me even now. The character of Leon (Reed) is destined to be doomed with his fate  forever sealed the moment he is born on a full moon. Strangely, it is not overly gory for a Hammer film, but fear not; the bright red blood is still there. One of the first Hammers I was shown and still what I believe to be the best.

The Reptile, John Gilling’s mythical shape-shifting horror, shot back to back with 3 other hammer productions (one of which was Plague of the Zombies, more on that later), is an atmospheric and slightly campy, supernatural romp. But by having the central villain a reptilian / female hybrid it offers something different from what most Hammers were at the time. Jacqueline Pearce churns out a supremely seductive performance while Ashton’s make-up effects (if seeming a little primitive when viewed now) still manages to capture a horrifying, on-screen creature. A creature that if seen in shadow, would give even the most hardened tough guy the heebie jeebies!

Bernhard Robinson’s lovingly crafted ‘Cornish Village’ set was again re-used by Gilling for his next feature, the aforementioned Plague of the Zombies (which incidentally is playing at Frighten Brighton). This is a zombie horror with some interesting themes (before Romero and without being socially specific) focusing on a small village under the oppressive tyranny of a power mad socialite. What is great about the characterisations of the zombies is that they have the most chilling and blood curdling scream. One of the only times a zombie (barring Romero’s original Night zombies) have managed to effectively chill me to my very core. Without resorting to devouring flesh, these ghouls are eerie, yet sympathetic souls towards the end of the film.

The atmospheric tone of the various shots, continue to provided both dread and fear in equal measures. For instance the sequence (the first of many) that continues to stick in my mind would be where Jacqueline Pearce, whilst dead in a half buried coffin, slowly transforms into a rotting corpse. That sequence along with the period setting (for which Hammer where so good at achieving) and the various subjective camera angles, allow me to enjoy this every time I view it. Looking back over the film it makes one wonder why there has not been more ‘period’ zombie films, shooting them in the modern day is quickly becoming stagnant, much like their zombies. It is also worth noting that not a single zombie eats another human throughout the whole film. I wonder if Romero would ever bring it back down to basics, now that I think about it.

A set of films that I have always been keen on (and which hold an almost morbid-like fascination with me) are Hammer’s films based around Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein novel. I adore the original book and try to re-read it at least once a year, the chilling but exciting prospect of creating life from death has always (deep down) both terrified and intrigued. So it would surprise no one that I do in fact own quite a few of the Frankenstein myths on film (which apart from the classic universal horrors) are some of this writers favourite characterisations of Baron Frankenstein and his creation. Peter Cushing’s turn in Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed in particular is a decidedly sadistic treat.

If the previous entries of the Baron played him as an anti-hero of sorts, this took an utter U-turn and showed the darkest side to Cushing’s characterisation. The Baron would happily blackmail, lie, cheat, rape and dismember all in the name of science (seems for some reason I am drawn to flawed scientists as characters) on top of which it is shot with panache by cinematographer Arthur Grant. The opening sequence where a masked Baron attacks a wealthy lord, decapitating him and then quickly getting rid of the evidence is both hard-hitting and effective. It’s almost a Jack The Ripper-esque appearance from The Baron, both violent and otherworldly. What is most enjoyable is how this entry goes out of its way to show an alternate persona of the Baron. A much needed change of style that Fisher went with after the metaphysical questioning of the soul from Frankenstein Created Woman, along with the lack of disembodied talking heads.

In Freddie Jones we have one of the most sympathetic (and human) of the Barons creations that Hammer committed to celluloid all of which is neatly topped off with a rousing climax set within a burning manor house. Here the creation and the baron come face to face with their own mortality. Powerful performances by both Jones and Cushing help to make this one of the last great Hammer Horrors, with Cushing’s presence utterly menacing as he dominates each of his scenes.

Dracula Has Risen From The Grave literally has the best and most unsubtle poster for a Hammer. It’s great that it wears a camp feel on its sleeve by not being historically faithful in the image (not sure pink plasters where around in the Victorian era!). Yet it still shows everything that Stoker conveyed about his vampires being sensual and mysterious beasts. It is also a more romanticized incarnation of Dracula as Lee prowls among the rooftops, while most of the scenes with Dracula add a wonderful burnt orange and red hue to its outer frames which when counted along with the rooftop sequences provide a more dreamlike aesthetic to the piece. It also has one of the best Dracula dispatches throughout the Hammers oeuvre; after falling off a cliff, the prince of darkness is impaled on a giant metal cross. Who says symbolic imagery does not have to be heavy-handed?

Finally there is Quatermass and the Pit, the rarest of beasts. This classic manages to perfectly encompass two genres (horror and sci-fi respectfully) on its limited budget, but makes every scene count. Even now it still has the power to amaze and terrify me with its London underground setting and haunting climax. Barbara Shelly and (one of my favourite Hammer actors) Andrew Keir turn out powerfully emotive performances, as they slowly uncover what lies buried in an underground train station. Nigel Kneale adapts his own story that terrifyingly questions our own evolution. The late great Roy Ward Baker orchestrates some truly memorable sequences such as the underground telekinetic attack, the Martian possession of the local Londoners and the final climactic (and explosive) showdown with a melancholic twist. Intelligent and gripping sci-fi this is still very much sterling stuff.

So it seems after 50 odd years the Hammer back catalogue hasn’t dated for its fans and continues to go from strength to strength, even with its overly melodramatic performances and identical use of sets. They also still manage to be darkly comic in places, juxtaposing pure horror with little touches of camp. Forever classics of British genre cinema, a tradition long since forgotten within the film industry, but one that is quickly being recognised once again.

Useful Links:

Buy Tickets For Frighten Brighton

The House of Hammer Horror

Classic Horror Campaign Newsletter


The Classic Horror Campaign has run two polls this year which focused on movie adaptations of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel Dracula.  Our first poll asked you to vote for The Greatest Dracula Movie Of All Time and the winner by an overwhelming majority with 32.35% of the votes was Hammer Films’ celebrated 1958 production of Dracula, known in the US as Horror of Dracula. Surprisingly, its closest rival in terms of votes was not Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal for Universal Pictures but the 1922 unofficial adaptation Nosferatu starring Max Shrek in the title role.  Third place honours go to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

We also ran a separate poll asking you to vote for Your Favourite Hammer Dracula Movie and once again Horror of Dracula took the lead with a massive 39% of all votes! Proof indeed that this is the greatest Dracula movie of all time! second place went to Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).

Directed by Terence Fisher Dracula (or Horror of Dracula) was Hammer’s second foray into mainstream gothic horror after their worldwide smash hit Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Starring Christopher Lee as the titular count, Dracula broke box-office records and was just the beginning of a whole slew of Hammer films featuring Dracula to be produced right up until the 1970′s. Lost footage of scenes originally censored for the UK and US versions of Dracula have recently been found in Japan and are currently being restored and added to an upcoming Blu-ray/dvd release of the film. It looks as if Dracula has indeed risen from the grave once again!

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