Tuesday 20 May 2014

Hammer Has Risen From The Grave

Many things long dormant are making a return these days, as the cycle of popular culture speeds up into a constant spin. Some of them welcome, and some of them (food banks, child poverty, neo-colonial racism) not so much. But one venerable British institution is having a long-overdue renaissance, albeit one which is yet to receive as much fanfare as it might deserve.

Hammer Productions, that cornerstone of British gothic horror, has cast a long shadow of the genre since the 1950s and has come to define British horror. It is not just the fact that it unleashed some of the finest examples of horror since the pre-war heyday of Universal, with seminal re-workings of the classic monsters that have done as much as any to define them, but also that they launched or sustained the careers of some the finest acting talent Britain had to offer – Christoper Lee, Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Andrew Keir, Ingrid Pitt, Caroline Munro and Joanna Lumley amongst them.

It also established many of the visual tropes of gothic horror in the mind of the general public – mute, wild-eyed vampires, stilted chase scenes, atonal soundtracks, heaving bosoms, invariably disbelieving or gullible peasants/police/priests, etc. and buckets and buckets of 'Kensington gore'. These motifs did much to establish Hammer as a raw exponent of gothic thrills and chills when they revived the genre in the late '50s and for the subsequent decades.

Of course Hammer had other more down-to-earth charms as well ,as they erred on the shonky as often as they did on the glorious. There were tales of films being shot back-to-back on identical sets to save money, of scripts apparently so terrible that actors refused to read them or films where shooting started without a script at all, and of funding being obtained on the strength of the film poster alone. Soon the films started becoming tongue-in-cheek ('Dracula AD 1972') or unintentionally hilarious ('The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires') and the eventual end of the Hammer story came with 'To The Devil A Daughter', an adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel that was so bad the author banned Hammer from ever using his books again. And on that bombshell it appeared that Hammer was no more.

Until...the creaking coffin lid opened once more in 2008, as the Hammer hit machine geared back into action. With the popularity of British horror having steadily grown throughout the noughties the time was right for a modern take on Hammer horror, and the groundwork laid in re-establishing the brand paid off when 'The Woman in Black' was a hit in 2012 and regained the credibility of Hammer in the process. And only a few weeks ago the Hammer class of 2014 released 'The Quiet Ones', the latest in their new line of modern supernatural chillers.

So Hammer has risen from the grave... the only thing missing is some old-fashioned Satanic cultery. Make sure you catch 'The Quiet Ones' at the cinema, then afterward treat yourself to one of the classic Hammer shockers (in either sense of the word) and rejoice in the restoration of a British institution – because the next time it goes it may not return.

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