We’re just days away from the NecronomiCon debut of Behold the Undead of Dracula, a new anthology from Muzzleland Press that acts as a lurid love-letter to the tawdry Technicolor terrors of ‘60s and ‘70s genre cinema. And I’m happy to say it features a new story from yours truly, “Diabolus in Musica.” It’s about an English film composer pushed to the bleeding edge by the demands of his producers, his own insecurities, and, oh yeah, the forces of Hell itself.
My biggest inspiration in writing this piece? The stiff-upper-lip gothic pulse-pounders of England’s iconic house of horrors, Hammer Film Productions.
Starting in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and ending in 1976 with To the Devil a Daughter, the company drip-fed audiences both young and old a steady diet of bloodsuckers, graverobbers, and devil-worshipers. While the Hammer style was often copied, few production houses succeeded in replicating that perfect balance between the pomp ‘n’ propriety of Victorian literature and the sex ‘n’ violence of the penny dreadfuls. The fact that said violence was presented for the first time in (un)living color made it all the better. Finally cineastes and sadists alike could gorge themselves on scenes of carnal carnage in full gory glory.
Not since the original Universal Monster days had a single film company been so synonymous with the macabre. Indeed, only the Universal Monsters themselves overshadow Hammer’s stable in terms of lasting impact. When people think of Dracula, if they don’t think of Bela Lugosi then they probably think of Christopher Lee. Being the second most iconic film studio in horror history might not sound as good as being number one, but it’s better than being third… or fourth… or fifth… or…
So draw the curtains, light a candelabra, and pour yourself a glass of red wine (or cranberry juice if you’re a teetotaler like me). These are My Top Ten Favorite Hammer Horror Movies (+1)…
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
No list of Hammer horrors would be complete without at least one Dracula flick and one Frankenstein. Not only were these the properties that propelled Hammer (as well stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) into genre immortality, they were also the company’s longest-running and most bankable franchises. So let’s get both out of the way right off the, ahem, bat. In the interest of shining a light on some of the less-lauded entries that I love, I’m going to forgo the first installments of both series. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Horror of Dracula is a must-see classic. Instead, permit me to explain why Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is equally as great.
The storyline is simplistic but solid: While the Count is away on vacation (AKA being dead) a priest comes and consecrates Castle Dracula. Returning home from his latest date with oblivion to find out some asshole has locked him out of his own crib, Big Bad Vlad is understandably pissed, embarking on a campaign of petty revenge against the holy man and his beautiful daughter (played beautifully by the beautiful Veronica Carlson, who is beautiful). In a twist, it turns out the girl’s boyfriend is an atheist, rendering him powerless against Hammer’s strictly satanic iteration of Dracula. Meanwhile, director Freddie Francis serves up a sumptuous soufflé of style-over-substance. From the Count’s bloodshot (and occasionally bleeding) eyes to the candy-colored gels which soak the screen in lysergic hues, Francis embellishes the foreboding atmosphere with a proto-Argento panache. It may not be as tasteful as previous entries, nor as trashy as later ones, but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is doubtlessly the franchise’s visual zenith.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell
Now that I’ve pissed off all the purists who prefer Terence Fisher to Freddie Francis, how about I take off the kid gloves for real? Often singled out as the worst in Hammer’s long-running Frankenstein franchise, 1973’s series swan-song Frankenstein & the Monster from Hell is actually pretty damn great. Sure it’s kind of inconsequential, less interested in pushing forward the larger narrative than in rehashing a bare-bones plot that can be summarized as “Victor Frankenstein builds yet another monster, because why not? The monster goes on a rampage, as usual. The monster gets killed, as usual. Frankenstein cleans up the mess and gets back to work. The end.” It’s not the broad strokes that make Monster from Hell stand out, though. It’s the stitched-together pieces.
To wit, this entry takes place almost entirely in an insane asylum, where Peter Cushing’s aging Baron has continued his fruitless experiments in secret. The grim setting establishes an oppressive mood, underlining the tragedy of Frankenstein’s life of obsession and failure. Having burned his hands to the point of virtual uselessness (one memorable scene sees him operating on a blood-dripping artery with his teeth), the not-so-good doctor seeks the aid of Simon, a recently committed fledgling bodysnatcher. The dynamic between the men adds a deeper dimension of horror to the otherwise fantastical costume melodrama. The characters serve as dark mirrors of one another; Simon reflects Frankenstein’s youthful sins back at him, while the haunted, withered Baron is a warning of what Simon could someday become. Like its namesake creature Monster from Hell may be a flawed patchwork, but as a whole it’s far greater than the sum of its parts.
The Lost Continent
Okay, now that we’ve tackled Hammer’s two most famous properties, let’s take a look at one of its lesser-known oddities. If the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises are the equivalents of greatest hits records, then The Lost Continent is a b-sides/rarities collection unto itself. A quirky mishmash of the company’s less popular non-gothic offerings, this adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel Uncharted Seas is part historical actioner (à la Captain Clegg), part fantasy adventure (à la One Million Years B.C.), and part drive-in creature-feature (à la The Quatermass Xperiment).
When the one-two punch of a violent hurricane and a smuggling scheme gone awry strands a tramp steamer in the middle of the mystery-shrouded Saragasso Sea, the vessel’s ragtag assortment of passengers must contend with glowing-eyed octopuses, flesh-eating seaweed, prehistoric crab-monsters, a pre-Star Wars Sarclacc pit, and a time-lost sect of Spanish Inquisitors led by the Napoleonic boy-king El Supremo! If you’re wondering who spiked your drink right now, you’re not alone; The Lost Continent is easily one of the most WTF indulgences in Hammer’s vast and varied library. It fluctuates between unintentional hilarity and ominous otherworldliness (the dirty orange skies above the shipwreck-strewn Saragasso are an especially eerie touch). As the ancient maps often warned, “here there be monsters.”
The Vampire Lovers
The recipe for a truly classic Hammer horror is simple enough, but requires a few key ingredients in precisely the right amounts. Supernatural forces are a must, as are opulent manors, questionable haircuts, and gallons of stage blood so bright it’s practically fluorescent. Oh yeah, and some gorgeous women in frilly Underoos. That last one is non-negotiable. Taking its cues from Britain’s other major silver-screen export, James Bond, Hammer always saved room for at least one slice of cheesecake. If you’ve got a sweet-tooth for that ol’ “Hammer glamour,” then 1970’s The Vampire Lovers will send your blood sugar into diabetic meltdown.
The cast-list for this one is absolutely stacked (in more ways than one) with wide-eyed, well-endowed beauties in diaphanous gowns: Madeline Smith, Pippa Steel, Dawn Addams, Kate O’Mara, Kirsten Lindholm. Some of them are predators, most are prey. All are stunning. And presiding over this sex-kitten litter like a sultry succubus queen is Ingrid Pitt, here playing the title character from Sheridan Le Fanu’s prototypical lesbian-vampire novella Carmilla. Considering Carmilla gets my vote as the best bloodsucker book of all time (outranking even Bram Stoker’s Dracula), it’s gratifying to see The Vampire Lovers hew so close to its source material, achieving a similarly enigmatic, ethereal, and erotic effect. What’s more, Pitt’s onscreen presence is so strong that despite starring in only two movies for Hammer (this and the following year’s Erzsébet Báthory-inspired Countess Dracula), she’s rightfully become as synonymous with the company as her male counterparts, Cushing and Lee.
I already talked about Vampire Circus back when I did my list of favorite vampire films (which ironically had less movies with the word “vampire” in their titles than this list does), but I never really went in-depth as to what makes the movie so exemplary. By far the most iconoclastic of Hammer’s many, many undead chillers, this one departs from the studio’s standard Victorian fare in favor of something more like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time there was a vampire whose favorite food was children. When a mob of townsfolk finally slayed him, he put a curse on their village with his dying breath. In time, a plague spread through the village, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Only a colorful troupe of clowns, acrobats, and strong-men dared to cross the quarantine, but it was more than fun and games that this circus brought to town.”
Playing fast and loose with nosferatu lore, Vampire Circus defies expectations on multiple levels. A Hammer film where bloodsuckers can morph into panthers and travel through mirrors proves as wondrous a novelty as the sensual, show-stopping dance routine performed by a naked woman in tiger-stripe body-paint. The envelope-pushing doesn’t stop at the carnivalesque, however. This is a movie with a mean-streak, and I’m not just talking about blood ‘n’ guts (although this flick is impressively gruesome). Genuine depravity lurks between the lines, with taboo-busting subtext evident in everything from the aforementioned dance scene’s less-than-subtle allusions to bestiality to the villains’ predatory preference for very young children. Such a dichotomy between the transgressive and the sublime is discomforting, but also fitting. After all, even the most sanitized Grimm tale was once something far grimmer.
The Plague of the Zombies
In 1968, my kindred Pennsylvanian spirit George A. Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, a film which signaled a sea change in genre cinema. Studio-produced gothic period-pieces were out. Independently made interrogations of contemporary anxieties were in. No one knew it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end for Hammer. Less than ten years later, the company would close its doors after an artistically fruitful but financially ruinous bid to hold onto a sharply shrinking market. A bitter irony, then, that two years prior Hammer had released its own living-dead nightmare, one which can today be seen as a missing link between the Haitian exploitation of early poverty-row shockers like White Zombie and Romero’s shambling hordes of greasepainted poli-sci allegories.
Set in a foggy 19th century Cornish hamlet, Plague of the Zombies pits a rationally minded doctor against a black-magic blue blood who uses secrets learned during his travels in the Caribbean to knock off his enemies and put their blank-eyed corpses to work in his tin mine. In stark contrast to Hammer’s usual aristocratic pretensions, the film’s caustic criticisms of exploitative capitalism are barely obscured behind director John Gilling’s skewed camera angles and artful shot compositions. Oh, and if the Romero connection weren’t enough, I personally am convinced that Lucio Fulci saw this movie at some point. I’d even go so far as to say he consciously referenced it in his surreal Lovecraftian epic The Gates of Hell (AKA City of the Living Dead). Do I have any hard evidence to back this up? No. But watch the fiery subterranean climaxes of both movies back-to-back and try to deny the similarities. Even if you think I’m talking out of my ass, at least it’ll make for a ghoulishly good double-feature.
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
First there was Dracula and his brides. Then Dr. Ravna and his cult. Then Carmilla and the Karnstein clan. Then Count Mitterhaus and the Circus of Night. In the sixteen years since Christopher Lee had first donned the velvet cape and plastic fangs, Hammer’s house of horrors had its halls overrun by sinister sanguinarians. Come 1974, it was time to call an exterminator. Enter Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Custom-built for Hammer by Brian Clemens, writer-producer of The Avengers (Steed and Peel, not Stark and Rogers), Kronos is a swashbuckling swordsman wandering Europe with his scholarly hunchback sidekick, in the process rescuing/romancing damsels and re-deading the undead.
Canonizing Hammer’s infamously inconsistent vampire rulebook, the movie reveals that there are hundreds of different bloodsucker breeds, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. So when he’s called upon to help a village besieged by a very different kind of vampire, one that feeds on youth, Kronos has to employ every nosferatu detection (and destruction) trick he’s got to put the kibosh on the big bad’s nosh. Despite its inventive combo-platter of action, horror, mystery, and comedy (one mordant scene features a suicidal vamp begging for death, only for repeated execution attempts to fail), poor distribution resulted in Captain Kronos flopping upon release, foiling Clemens’ obvious sequel ambitions. Since then, however, the picture has become a fan favorite, recognized as a pulpy precursor to the monster-slayer template later made famous by Buffy and Blade.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb
Mummies, ya gotta love ‘em. They’re the underdogs of the creature-feature pantheon, silent servants covered in decaying bandages that only barely mask their hideous scarab-eaten skull-faces and… uh, wait… is that Valerie Leon? Okay, I can see why some folks don’t consider Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb a “real” mummy movie, but the truth is such flicks tend to be samey as hell. Swapping out the typical gauze-wrapped galoot for a perfectly preserved Egyptian witch-queen who psychically assaults an archaeologist’s comely daughter is a welcome change. Besides, I’m not going to argue with someone who looks like that in a pharaoh’s headdress. If Valerie Leon says she’s a mummy, she’s a mummy. Shit, she can be my “mummy” if she wants. I mean… oh god, forget I said that.
Apparently a victim of a curse itself, the troubled production saw Peter Cushing bow out when his wife’s health took a nasty turn, director Seth Holt suffer a fatal on-set heart attack before he could finish filming, and producer Michael Carreras scramble to shoot enough footage to assemble a passable cut. Despite all that, the final product is more than merely passable. It’s exceptional. Sure it’s awkward and uneven in fits, but it’s also dreamlike, sexy, and fun. Maybe it’s the source material, this being an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars. Or maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern, as Hammer uncharacteristically eschewed a period setting in favor of swingin’ ’70s London. Or maybe it’s that evil ambulatory severed hand crawling about, oozing gore from its ragged stump. Whatever it is, something about Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb just clicks. Honestly, my money is on Valerie Leon in dual roles. Two Valerie Leons at the same time? Someone’s been reading my diary.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
By 1974, Hammer horror was in dire straits. Despite releasing some of its best movies (including the aforementioned Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, as well as lesser-known gems like Demons of the Mind, which came very close to making this list), the ’70s were not a profitable time for the company, with audiences moving onto the more visceral, contemporary thrills of The Exorcist and The Last House on the Left. In a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate its increasingly anemic bloodsucker formula, Hammer decided it needed a heady dose of Asian action. Picture a room full of stuffy Brits sipping tea and grumbling about box office receipts before finally proclaiming “Chop-sockey pictures, that’s what kids like these days! I say we bloody well give ‘em one! Pip pip! Jolly good! Bangers and mash!”
Taking a little from Column A and a little from Column B, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires drops Peter Cushing smack-dab in the middle of Hong Kong to hang out with Shaw Brothers Studio, a company that was much to kung-fu what Hammer was to horror. The resulting culture clash pits Cushing’s Van Helsing and a family of martial-arts masters (including cult actor David Chiang) against an army of sword-swingin’ rot-faced nosferatu (some of whom constantly hop up and down in accordance with Chinese folklore). Plot is almost nonexistent, consisting of little more than characters beelining from one frenetic fight scene to the next. Nevertheless, the briskly paced go-for-brokeness proves insanely charming and charmingly insane. It’s also one of Hammer’s most stylish efforts, bathing Buddhist temples in Bava-esque red and green lights. It’s hard to believe The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires hit theaters the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that just adds to its flamboyant, fang-flashing, fury-fisted fun.
The Devil Rides Out
Crowned the “Prince of Thriller Writers” in life and in death (the epithet is actually inscribed on his tombstone), Dennis Wheatley was basically England’s homegrown Stephen King back in the day, selling over 50 million books in almost 30 different languages. One enthusiastic peer called his 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out “the best thing of its kind since Dracula.” His work has not aged well, however. Though entertaining as pure pulp fiction, much of his oeuvre is shot through with overt racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, imperialism, and a kind of shrill conservative Christian alarmism. Fortunately, the same could not be said about Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, which glosses over the worst of Wheatley’s above-listed prejudices and actually makes a virtue of that last one.
Starring Christopher Lee in a rare heroic turn as steely occult-adventurer Duke de Richleau, The Devil Rides Out (the first of three Wheatley adaptations Hammer produced, the others being the previously discussed The Lost Continent and what would be the studio’s final horror film, To the Devil a Daughter) sees Lee butting heads with a devil-worshiping secret society’s high priest (played by Charles Gray, who Rocky Horror fans will recognize for his lack of neck). The Duke ends up staring down a gauntlet of spiritual threats, including a giant spectral tarantula, a goat-headed demon, and even the Angel of Death itself, before the conflict resolves with a literal deus ex machina. Crap climax aside, The Devil Rides Out has a lot to recommend it: Terence Fisher’s elegant direction, Lee and Gray’s antagonistic chemistry, enough hocus-pocus hokum to fill a hundred heavy-metal records, and a screenplay by none other than Richard F’N Matheson, who manages to keep the story from feeling like a sermon (at least until the last few minutes). Watch this one while hailing Satan for best results.
Twins of Evil
As noted throughout this list, one of Hammer’s defining characteristics was a penchant for casting eye-catching beauties, initially in secondary roles (such as Veronica Carlson in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) but increasingly as top-billed leads (such as Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers and Valerie Leon in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb). Not too proud to pat itself on the back, the studio made a habit of promoting its films with self-congratulatory boasts about every “hot new discovery.” One of the hottest of Hammer’s new discoveries was actually two discoveries: Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who’d made history in 1970 as Playboy’s first ever identical twin centerfolds. Hammer produced Twins of Evil a year later specifically as a vehicle for the sisters.
This final entry in the Karnstein trilogy (following The Vampire Lovers and its so-so sequel Lust for a Vampire) brilliantly combines the lesbian-vampire and witchfinder subgenres. As a fanatical Puritan on a quest to immolate anyone unlucky enough to own a vagina, Peter Cushing is even scarier than the requisite bloodsuckers. When his archnemesis, a fanged libertine under royal protection, sets his sanguinarian sights on those beautiful, bouncy Collinson cuties, the result is much girl-on-girl neck-nuzzling, dripping wet penetration (of the arterial kind; get your mind out of the gutter), mistaken-identity mishaps, and scenes of incest both implicit and explicit. At the staked heart of Twins of Evil is a war between repression and debauchery, embodied by Cushing’s torch-bearing zealot and his libidinous adversary, as well as by the titular sisters themselves. Providing more than just verboten sex-appeal, the Collinsons’ mirrored features allow them to be understood as two halves of a larger whole, initially inseparable but fatefully fragmented by religion’s assault on their natural curiosities and desires.