Special Feature: Hammer Horror – the Resurrection

If you mention the name of Hammer Horror to any forty-plus film enthusiast (or similarly, any cinephile worth their salt), it’s more than likely that they’ll begin nostalgically harking back to the “Golden Age” of UK horror cinema that took place between the 1950s up until the early ‘70s, during which time Hammer Films – lead by poster boys such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing – succeeded in reanimating a number of horror literature’s greatest monsters and maniacal eccentrics, including Count Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing, for an entirely new generation, under the guise of Hammer Horror. This was the boom period.

Unfortunately, Hammer’s days appeared to be numbered as the 1960s came to a close, finding itself unable to compete with the new wave of graphic, controversial US horrors that had washed over the UK, with films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – both tame by today’s standards in terms of bloody shocks – providing UK audience with never-before-seen levels of gore, violence and psychosexual content. Hammer’s theatrical, borderline camp approach to horror quickly became little more than a non-appealing novelty; an anachronistic thing of the past. Decades of decline and near-bankruptcy were to follow, and it appeared that Hammer Films was fast approaching its own grisly demise.

Now however, after a number of false dawns, Hammer appears to be on the verge of an unlikely comeback, following on from its purchase by Exclusive Media Group in 2007. On November 5, the British horror studio is set to release its first high profile cinematic horror feature in over 30 years, Let Me In, an English language remake of the 2008’s Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In, directed by Cloverfield (2008) director Matt Reeves. Shot with a relatively humble budget of approximately $20 million, Reeves transposes the original’s Swedish small town backdrop to the wintry vistas and apartment blocks of Los Alamos, New Mexico, with the intention of broadening the original story’s appeal to a wider, more mainstream, vamp-hungry audience.

Hammer’s return to familiar subject matter – namely cinema’s greatest monster, the vampire – has never been so timely and relevant, with western cinemas still currently besieged by films starring everyone’s favourite blood-suckers. For Simon Oakes, president and CEO of the rejuvenated Hammer Films, the production and imminent release of Reeves’ Let Me In has taken the production company full circle, returning to the type of film that made Hammer a household name. “In a sense, we set the bar for vampire films…In the Dracula movies of the late ‘50s, Hammer transformed the vampire, played by Christopher Lee, into a quite sensual figure. I think that we set the tone for that approach to the vampire lore and it has lasted for decades”.

Let Me In certainly succeeds in subverting many of our preconceptions towards the vampire archetype, due in no small part to its faithfulness to the original text on which it is based. Like many of Hammer’s most revered and renowned past successes, Let Me In’s origin lies predominantly with a literary source, in this case, Swedish horror novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist’s text Let the Right One In. Hammer CEO Oakes has made it clear that Lindqvist’s precursory text was foremost in the production team’s mind, even before Tomas Alfredson’s initial cinematic attempt. “We tracked it [Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In] very early on” says Oakes, “It is a story that should be available to a wider audience. Even though competition for the material was stiff, we developed a relationship with the producers and, as a result, we were able to secure the rights.”

Arguably the studio’s most exciting future project is the first ever cinematic adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic supernatural tale The Woman in Black (2011), starring the UK’s own Daniel Radcliffe as haunted protagonist Arthur Kipps. Few can accuse the new look Hammer Films of overlooking British talent, with Jane Goldman handed the unenviable task of transferring Hill’s bone chilling original text to screenplay form, and James Watkins attached to direct. Watkins, in reference to both the casting of Radcliffe and his plans for the film, has stated, “When I met Dan, it was quite uncanny how closely our thoughts on the story mirrored each other: I can’t wait to get down to work with him to fashion a compelling character and a classy ghost story that tugs at the heart and chills to the bone.”

The term “classy”, used by Watkins in the above statement, appears to be at the heart of Hammer’s past, present and future ethos. And whilst this strict adherence to high standards of old fashioned storytelling and defined aesthetics may have previously proved near fatal for the British horror studio, Hammer Film’s gradual rise back to prominence within a film genre currently dominated by the tired, superficially visceral cult of “torture porn” could not be more welcome, or refreshing.

Daniel Green