• Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros. Years

    Released by: Diabolique Films
    Running Time: 1:41:27
    Written and Directed by: Marcus Hearn
    Edited by: Dima Ballin, Jamie Green, Sarah Appleton
    Produced by: Dima Ballin
    Year: 2017

    Hammer Productions was founded in 1934 by comedian William Hinds (whose stage name was Will Hammer). Around the same time, Hinds and fellow entrepreneur Enrique Carreras also formed Exclusive Films to distribute movies made by Hammer and others. Hammer’s first production was the comedy spoof The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935), designed to exploit the success of London Film Studio’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). MGM picked up Public Life for North American release, and Hammer followed the film with its first horror production, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935; U.S. title: Phantom Ship), stacking its deck—no pun intended—by importing popular Hollywood star Bela Lugosi (Dracula, 1931) and casting him in an important role. But when the film (and the next few that followed) didn’t mine the hoped-for box-office gold, the company went into a decade-long hiatus. Its reactivation in the late 1940s was inconspicuous, consisting at first of low-budget mysteries and crime programmers. Then, after a 1955 adaptation of the BBC sci-fi serial The Quatermass Experiment—retitled The Quatermass Xperiment to capitalize on the film’s adult-oriented X certificate in Great Britain—pointed the studio in a new, more successful direction, production began on The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Curse added copious amounts of sex, blood, and color to the genre and became Hammer’s second major international hit. Thus was Hammer Horror truly born.

    The Curse of Frankenstein was produced with the support of A.A.P. producer Eliot Hyman. By adapting a novel that had long been in the public domain and varying the makeup on its monstrous central character, Hammer avoided infringing on Universal’s copyright. The finished product proved a massive success for distributor Warner Bros., though Warner passed on a sequel, leaving Hammer to make production deals with multiple other companies, including Columbia and Universal. It wasn’t until years later, after Warner came under the control of Seven Arts, that Hammer and Warner again joined forces to make a small number of films. Since that time, other Hammer productions have fallen into the Warner library, thanks to Warner’s acquisition of other companies and/or their libraries.

    In 2014, Dima Ballin, publisher of the horror magazine Diabolique, started a petition to convince Warner to release its Hammer library on Blu. That library included one film originally released by Warner (The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957), two films originally funded and released by Universal (Horror of Dracula, 1958; The Mummy, 1959), two films originally released by MGM (Hysteria and She, both 1965), and nine films made directly in connection with Warner (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968; Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, 1969; Crescendo, 1969; Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970; Moon Zero Two, 1970; When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, 1970; Dracula A.D. 1972, 1972; The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973; and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, 1974). To everyone’s surprise, Warner released Horror Classics Vol. 1 on Blu-ray in the fall of 2015; containing The Mummy, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Taste the Blood of Dracula, it unfortunately lacked the extras that made various British releases of Hammer titles on Blu so appealing. The result was a Kickstarter campaign, again organized by Ballin and with the support of noted Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby—as well as a slew of Hammer lovers from across the Internet and the world—to fund a documentary that would focus on the relationship between Hammer and Warner Bros.

    The resulting feature-length documentary, Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros. Years, is due for release on Blu-ray in early 2018, funded by the contributions of innumerable fans. Written and directed by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, it employs some of the biggest names in the Hammer review business, including the aforementioned Jonathan Rigby (English Gothic, Signum, 2015) as well as authors Denis Meikle (A History of Horrors, Scarecrow Press, 2008), IQ Hunter (British Trash Cinema, British Film Institute, 2013), Christopher Frayling (Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, 1996), Wayne Kinsey and Gordon Thomson (Hammer Films on Location, Peveril Publishing, 2012), and Steve Chibnall (The British B Film, British Film Institute, 2009), as well as various Hammer actors (Veronica Carlson, John Carson, Madeline Smith, and Caroline Munro), Hammer crew (director Peter Sasdy, script editor Nadja Regin, and continuity supervisor Renee Glynn), as well as Hammer fan Joe Dante (director of Gremlins, 1984) and others.

    The program begins with a discussion of Hammer’s first blatant entry into the horror and sci-fi genres in the post-war era, The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, and touches briefly on the trajectory it caused for the company. It then falls into a lengthy and informative dissection of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the company’s first full-on co-production with Warner. After discussing the lasting impact of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) on horror cinema, it moves on to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Crescendo, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Moon Zero Two, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, in that order. Most films are covered in-depth, though Crescendo and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth get the least amount of attention, an understandable slight given their minor statuses in their respective genres. Following Legend, the crew discusses how The Exorcist nailed the coffin shut on Gothic horror and Hammer, which failed to adapt quickly enough and soon closed up shop in all but name only (at least, until the 2000s). The documentary concludes with the discussion of an audio adaptation of one of Anthony Hinds’ unfilmed scripts, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula.

    Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros. Years is an excellent foray into the makings of some of Hammer’s most iconic films. Chock full of interesting anecdotes, it covers a slew of Hammer productions that have long gotten short shrift from the very company that owns them. The program moves at a brisk pace with nary a dull moment. Hearn’s craft at writing and interviewing is evident in the way conversations are seamlessly blended for full impact, and the participants are mostly spot on in their observations of Hammer’s varied successes and failures—and the reasons for them. Helping things move is fast-paced editing that doesn’t stay on any one person or subject too long and musical accentuations that often come from the original films themselves.