Hammer Film Productions’ fantasy-adventure The Lost Continent is an adaptation of the works of William Hope Hodgson. Or it is to me, anyway. The credits say it’s based on the 1938 novel Uncharted Seas by Dennis Wheatley, but my eyes don’t lie: what Hammer put on screen is the nearest any movie has come to capturing the aura of Hodgson’s weird tales of the slimy terrors of the deep and the unknown horrors lurking in the Sargasso Sea.*
The Lost Continent arrived during the final phase of Hammer’s golden age. The company had moved out of its original studio at Bray and was now shooting at Pinewood and Elstree Studios. The feel of a unified family was starting to fray, and Hammer’s best in-house producers would soon depart. But producer Michael Carreras, son of studio head James Carreras, was still around and pushing Hammer to make larger-scale adventure films. Although Carreras was one of Hammer’s most prolific producers of horror movies — he produced Terence Fisher-directed classics like The Mummy, Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf — he never had any personal fondness for the Gothics. He saw lavish adventure and fantasy films like She (1965) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) as Hammer’s future. The Lost Continent was meant as an extension of the success of those movies, although it sometimes veered into horror.
Carreras was also an occasional director, and when The Lost Continent’s original director Leslie Norman (X the Unknown) fell sick early in production, Carreras stepped into the director’s chair. Carreras also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Michael Nash, the name of his gardener.
I love October, but it brings with it a major annoyance from popular movie websites: a deluge of click-bait lists with titles such as “10 Best Horror Films for Halloween,” “10 Best Underrated Horror Films,” and “10 Best Horror Films We Market Researched from Other 10 Best Horror Films Lists.” They’re tedious, show no deep thought about the genre or the season, and feature the same set of obvious picks. Plus, I have never seen one of these Top Halloween Movie lists include The Gorgon. Therefore, they all bear false witness.
The Gorgon is Halloween movie perfection, and ranks with the 1958 Dracula as the Hammer film most fit for the ghoul season. It’s Gothic, has a classic — albeit unusual — monster, features a small European village beneath a beetling haunted castle, and stars both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Plenty of Hammer films contain these elements. But what makes The Gorgon stand out for October is how much the dry, crisp, windy sensation of autumn blows through it. You can feel the arid wind each time it slams open a window or door. Dead leaves are strewn everywhere. The moon hides behind ever-scudding clouds. And there’s a sough on the breeze that sounds like a woman in the distance singing eerily (with electric organ accompaniment). It’s one of the studio’s most sumptuously beautiful productions and fulfills director Terence Fisher’s aim to craft his horror films in the model of dark fairy tales.
It’s also simply a fantastic movie with complex characters and psychology to make its designs mean something. Director Terence Fisher, the production team, and the insanely talented cast all outdid themselves on this one. The Gorgon doesn’t have the name recognition of a Dracula or a Frankenstein film, but it deserves to be better known — because I for one can’t imagine October going by without watching it.
Hammer moved rapidly through the classic movie monster catalog once they settled into Gothic horror, and by 1964 they were interested in finding new monsters. J. Llewellyn Devine came up with the idea of using a Greek mythological creature, the snake-headed Gorgon. He invented a new one called Megaera, the only survivor of the original three Gorgon sisters. (In the Perseus myth, the Gorgons are named Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale.) John Gilling, one of Hammer’s prolific directors, turned Devine’s treatment into a script, with uncredited rewrites from Anthony Hinds. Gilling wanted to direct the script himself, and was contemptuous of Hinds’s change and the final results. I understand his anger — but I disagree with his assessment of the movie.
I loitered in the early ‘60s for my first twoHammer movies of October. Now it’s time to shift to a different era in the fortunes of the British studio that redefined Gothic cinema: the sexy, violent, and financially troubled early 1970s. Hammer Film Productions didn’t make it out of the decade, releasing their last film in 1978, but this period of independent producers and escalating R-rated material left behind some enjoyable decadence. Twins of Evil is late-period Hammer sexploitation with a basic high concept: sexy twin vampire girls! But the film ends up far better than the exploitation lure would lead you to expect. A good portion of this success has to do with Peter Cushing delivering a top-tier career performance as basically an aging, less tolerant Solomon Kane.
By 1970, the close-knit Hammer family was scattering. The in-house producers had left, so chairman James Carreras turned to outside producers. A small company called Fantale Films, consisting of producers Michael Fine and Harry Styles and writer Tudor Gates, brought Hammer a proposal to film Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella “Carmilla.” This led to a loose trilogy of films about the Karnstein clan: The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire (both 1970) and Twins of Evil. Filled with nudity and overt lesbianism — at least in the first movie — the Karnstein series was a hit for Hammer at a time when the studio struggled to keep up with changing tastes in horror.
Twins of Evil is nebulously a prequel to the first two Karnstein films, showing how Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) became one of the undead when he raised the vampire of sixteenth-century Countess Mircalla (Katya Wyeth) from her tomb. The heart of the story, however, is the Brotherhood: a band of puritan crusaders under the leadership of the fanatic Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing). The Brotherhood executes suspected witches and devil worshippers across Karnstein’s domains, although they cannot touch the count himself.
On the second week of October, Hammer Films gave to me … one Oliver Reed werewolf, and I guess that’s all I need.
By 1961, the Gothic horror machine at Hammer Film Productions had unleashed Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy. Now partnered with Universal International and free to use the studio’s classic monsters, it was inevitable that Hammer tackled The Wolf Man next. Universal, however, purchased the rights to Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris and asked Hammer to adapt that. Instead of a Hammerized version of the tragedy of Lawrence Talbot, we got a much different type of lycanthrope movie, The Curse of the Werewolf. Which is fine, because The Curse of the Werewolf is pretty darn great. Director Terence Fisher and the production team working out of Bray Studios were in peak form, and Oliver Reed, in his first starring role, ripped ferociously into a part so suited to his talents that it feels like the start of a comedy bit.
There was no feasible way for Hammer to make a straight adaptation of The Werewolf of Paris on a $100,000 budget. Producer Anthony Hinds was stunned when he first read the novel to discover epic scenes of warfare and street fighting in the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. With no money to hire a screenwriter, Hinds took on the job himself, using the writing pseudonym “John Elder” for the first time, and looked for a way to squeeze a werewolf script into the budget. One cost-saving maneuver was relocating the story from nineteenth-century France to eighteenth-century Spain so the movie could be shot back-to-back on the sets for The Rape of Sabena, a Spanish Inquisition movie co-financed with Columbia. Hammer chairman James Carreras canceled The Rape of Sabena because of concerns raised by the British Board of Film Censorship, but the sets were already built, so The Curse of the Werewolf continued ahead with the Spanish setting. It would also run into grief with the BBFC; considering some of the sexually violent content, it’s amazing The Curse of the Werewolf made it through production while the Inquisition movie never got off the blocks.
October is here and that means I need no excuse simply to line up a quartet of horror movies from Britain’s Hammer Film Productions for the next four Saturdays in a row and throw words at them. For me, Hammer films are the perfect horrors for the Halloween season: atmospheric, Gothic, supernatural featuring famous monsters, violent without making you feel abysmal afterward, and packed with plenty of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Hammer movies feel like great Halloween party guests who wear the most elegant costumes and whom you want to hang out with after the other guests have gone home.
My criteria for picking the four movies for a Hammer October was to choose films from outside of the studio’s two major franchises — Dracula and Frankenstein — and which are currently available on Blu-ray in North America. Which means Plague of the Zombies and The Devil Rides Out are disqualified, unfortunately. (Kino Lorber, please get on this.) But it was easy to find movies that fit my ghoulish bill, and I’m starting off with the first vampire film Hammer produced that didn’t involve Dracula.
The Kiss of the Vampire was originally intended as a follow-up to The Brides of Dracula (1960), the first sequel to Hammer’s smash 1958 hit Dracula/Horror of Dracula. Hammer was trying to create a Dracula series without the count and Christopher Lee, focusing instead on Dracula’s legacy of aristocratic blood-sucking descendants and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing pursuing them. The Kiss of the Vampire was going to continue this, introducing a full coven of vampires holding black magic ceremonies in a Gothic castle. This expanded on hints from The Brides of Dracula: the opening narration speaking of how Dracula’s “disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world,” and the story of the wealthy visitors to Castle Meinster who seduced the young baron into their undead circle.
One Million Years B.C. was released this week on Region A (North America) Blu-ray for the first time, drawing us one step closer to a complete set of Ray Harryhausen movies on Hi-Def. We still need The Valley of Gwangi, which Warner Bros. owns — and they’re stingy about catalogue titles, especially if they’ve already released them as part of the Warner Archive MOD series. (Edit: Warner Archive is releasing a Blu-ray that will be out in a few weeks! So never mind. Thanks to Joe H. in the comments for pointing this out. Yes, there will be a review on March 18.)
But no more of that. I’m here to celebrate the stop-motion dinosaurs of 1966’s One Million Years B.C., which is a crossover of two of my main movie loves: special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and Britain’s Hammer Film Productions.
Hammer and Harryhausen
I once read a customer review on Amazon for the One Million Years B.C. DVD that remarked at the end, “If you’re buying this, you’re buying it for Raquel.” I wonder if the reviewer nodded off during stretches of the film and somehow failed to notice that there are dinosaurs all over it? Dinosaurs created by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen!
I’m not casting aspersions on the appeal of Raquel Welch; she has a enough screen presence to fill in a rock quarry and was a massive part of the movie’s marketing and initial global success. She adds a tremendous amount to the film and helps hold up the human action between stop-motion sequences. Yes, she is stunningly gorgeous on screen to the point that she almost seems unreal. But Raquel Welch has never been as popular as dinosaurs. Sorry, there’s no contest.
Let’s be honest: if One Million Years B.C. had no stop-motion Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs, it would be remembered today for the famous Raquel Welch image and that’s it. People wouldn’t still be watching the film or buying new releases of it more than fifty years later. The film itself would be a side-note, something discussed in terms of Welch’s career and popular 1960s sex symbols, but not anything viewers today would sit down to enjoy in full. Harryhausen’s effects make One Million Years B.C. a perennial.
When October disappears over the horizon, horror movie DVDs and Blu-rays go into hiding, and streaming services store their terror title watchlists away for another day. But a certain type of off-kilter movie survives through the end of the year. The winter holidays usher in bizarre “ironic” seasonal favorites. You’ll probably watch Die Hard. Me, I’m a fan of Batman Returns when it comes to dark festive cheer. And Gremlins. We can add The Krampus to the list of holiday-themed horror flicks. Your family may insist on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, although if you’re of my mind you’d prefer your cartoony Christmas violence via Home Alone. Or In Bruges. The Lord of the Rings films have a certain holiday vibe, and the same goes for the Harry Potter saga. If you want to take in a Bond movie for the Yuletide, there’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service … although you may wish to shut it off two minutes before the end.
But is there a place for Britain’s legendary Hammer Film Productions during Winter Solstice? After the 31st of October, do the Hammer DVDs and Blu-rays need to stay put by the Demon Elf on the Shelf?
No, I say! Hammer has a seasonal holiday treat, Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966). Okay, maybe only I consider it a holiday watch, but I’d like to share it with you.
Rasputin the Mad Monk isnot a horror film. I have to make this clear upfront. Although released in many territories on a double bill with The Reptile and later paired with The Devil Rides Out on its first DVD release, Rasputin the Mad Monk is a historical melodrama with violent flourishes. Because the Hammer name is so synonymous today with “horror,” we forget that Hammer Film Productions was a busy studio that also put out comedies, science fiction, crime dramas, psychological thrillers, historical costume pictures, and adventure movies. Their reputation for horror ended up affecting the marketing of some non-horror fare: The Hounds of the Baskervilles (1959), a straight Sherlock Holmes adaptation, was sold with a drooling spectral wolfshead on the posters. Captain Clegg (1962), a swashbuckler about smugglers, was rechristened Night Creatures in the U.S. for no reason except that the distributor had that title lying around and wanted an excuse to use it.
Last week, we looked at Tom Baker’s relatively unknown Hound of the Baskervilles. As this post is being published on May 26, which is the birthday of a classic Holmes, we’ll look his version of The Hound. For on this date in 1913, Peter Cushing was born in Surrey.
Basil Rathbone’s contract expired in 1946 and, feeling imprisoned in the role of Sherlock Holmes, he refused to renew it. So great was his shadow that it would be thirteen years before another studio even attempted to make a Sherlock Holmes movie. Hammer Films is legendary in England for their run of horror films, starting in the fifties.
Those old Universal classics from America had never caught on across the pond. Hammer, however, made a series of successful horror films, frequently co-starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
In 1959, Hammer broke new ground with the first colorized version of The Hound. Not surprisingly, they turned to Cushing and Lee to carry the movie.
The Woman in Black (2012) Directed by James Watkins. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer.
Watching The Woman in Black was the first time in my life that I got to see a Hammer Horror movie first run in a theater. That is just kind of totally amazing. Hammer Film Productions is responsible for nearly half of the horror movies I would list as my favorites, and just the name of the studio summons up delicious visions of Gothic wonder the likes of which live in a distant realm, a dream-state, along with the great Universal monster classics.
Hammer was a studio of the past: it released its last horror film, To the Devil, A Daughter, in 1976, and its final theatrical film, a re-make of The Lady Vanishes, in 1979. But Hammer resurrected itself as a working production company in 2007, and with The Woman in Black it returns to the genre that made it famous: Gothic Victorian horror.
October films come in two flavors for me: Universal and Hammer. I have affection for almost any Gothic horror films these studios produced during their Golden Ages (1930s and ‘40s for Universal, 1950s and ‘60s for Hammer), even the lesser entries. The studios have such opposite visual approaches to similar material — the black-and-white shadows of Universal, the rococo lurid colors of Hammer — that they create a perfect Yin and Yang for Halloween, a Ghastly Story for Whatever Suits Your October Mood.
And what suits my mood best, most of the time? Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula. This isn’t my top pick of the Hammer canon — I lean toward two 1968 films for that honor, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Devil Rides Out— but it is the film I turn to more than any other when the calendar changes into the deep orange and serge hues of the Greatest Month.
Dracula ‘58 is my favorite version of the Dracula story, and perhaps my favorite vampire anything — with the possible exception of Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. It has flaws, but scoffs at me for even thinking that they exist. It is so desperately alive, so exploding with its own entertainment value, and so rich in execution that it never fails to be “exactly what I wanted to watch tonight.” I can say that about few films, even objectively better films.
Dracula is the cornerstone of the Hammer Film Productions legend, and an icon of the Anglo-Horror revival that seized the 1960s. Hammer had already entered the field of horror with their science-fiction “Quatermass” films, the intriguing spiritual spin-off X the Unknown, and the unusual creature-search adventure The Abominable Snowman. In 1957, the studio made their first color period horror movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, which whirled far away from both standard source materials — Mary Shelley’s novel and the 1931 James Whale film starring Boris Karloff — to represent an accidental manifesto of the new terror. It also introduced the horror-watching world to the double-team of Peter Cushing (Doctor) and Christopher Lee (Monster).