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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Welcome to the Hammerscape- A word about Hammer Movies

Welcome to the Hammerscape- A word about Hammer

Some films have settings, and some settings have films.

There are worlds in film that succeed so brilliantly that they must surely continue once the film is over- landscapes and backgrounds so powerful that we get the impression that the films we see taking place in these worlds are just windows allowing us to visit for a few hours. We can count these cohesive worlds on our hands- In science fiction films, there's Star Wars universe and the Star Trek universe, to name the most cohesive. The Mad Max pictures created such a world, one that has been imitated so many times you might forget that once, it was original.

In Horror, there's one world that holds together like that: a landscape slightly European and slightly British, slightly historical and modern, adaptable to many plots and characters and yet always recognizable. In Horror, there is the Hammerscape.

What is the Hammerscape? You have to see it to truly get it, but it is a cohesive horror universe reflected in curiously stagy and yet convincing sets, oddly lurid and sumptuous and yet stunningly classy colors (Ah, burgundy! Burgundy everywhere!), and not a single element that doesn't fit into the Hammer Ideal.

The history of Hammer Studios is prosaic and better told in detail elsewhere; it's the stuff that fanboy triviaphilia is made of. In the late 1950's, horror was dead. The Universal Revolution of the thirties and forties had defined horror and set up its own recognizable horror landscape; a black-and-white world in every sense, full of expressionist technique and suffused with a distinctly modern, old-europe-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-the-American-GI viewpoint. Occasional earlier attempts notwithstanding, Hollywood's Universal Studios gave us the stars of classic horror: Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, effectively providing a starting vocabulary for future artists in the genre. By the fifties, modern sensibilities in a gothic landscape had given way to science fiction and cold war hysteria, and horror was a thing of the past.

Then, in 1956, Hammer Studios in Britain started all over again, and they moved horror forward by looking back. Brazenly choosing to tackle the giants of the genre first, Hammer made its presence known by releasing The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, followed shortly by 1958's Dracula. Both starred the two men who would forever be the faces of Hammer, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

What made these films special? The conventional article on Hammer will suggest that the trick was to make Dracula and Frankenstein more "modern." They used color, after all. They explored sexual themes. All of this is true, it's a first-glance thesis that misses a lot. Hammer was not more "modern" than Universal- in fact, Hammer was quite the opposite. Hammer used modern tools to throw its films body and soul into a crushing and complicated love affair with antiquity. Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula came from a time when science had conquered the world and could conquer monsters, too. Hammer came from a time when we'd grown out of that ideal and found ourselves fearing the unseen once again.

Hammer's horror was, in a word, Gothic. By Gothic, I mean that curious idealization of the past, and not necessarily any real, actual past, but an idealized, antiquated past. Gothic is the love of antiquity, and in many respects, the love of death. (And I highly recommend Bruce Wright's Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies for a more adequate discussion of the phenomenon than I have time for here.) Universal's Dracula was sensual, but his victims never seriously would have joined him. He was a monster. Christopher Lee was even scarier, because he was attractive, he was brazenly sexy and sinful and dangerous and evil, and his victims not only had to combat him but themselves, and the evil in themselves. This was a darker world than Universal ever gave us. And armed with this philosophy guaranteed to curdle the blood, Hammer carefully (and sometimes less carefully) crafted a series of films that reflect that mindset in every nook and cranny, in every costume and set.

Part of the conceit, of course, was in re-use: Hammer knew how to stretch a pound and make it look like they wanted it that way. Like a modern television series, Hammer Studios employed the same key players and crew over and over again, until they invariably retired, having trained the younger set. Bernard Robinson, the brilliant set-designer who horror chronicler Dick Klemensen calls the "backbone and heart of the Hammer success story," created castles and marble floors and battlements out of plaster and chalk and not only made it look great, it looked right, and could look right over and over again. Cinematographer Jack Asher designed the well-contrasted and distinct color palette. And so on.

I write all of this, and yet it's not enough. The Hammerscape is magic, and describing it doesn't really cut it.

So that's what Letters from the Hammerscape is about. Mind you, it's a rag-tag fleet of films, sometimes, and I'll be sure to note when a movie comes close to the Hammer Ideal, when it doesn't and when it just plum fails. (But even when Hammer fails, it fails with charm.)

Gather round, now, and let's talk horror. More to the point, let's talk horror films, and while we're at it, let's talk the best horror films going.

Let's talk Hammer.

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