Hammering the Stake Through Dracula’s Heart

Hammer’s Dracula movies may well be their most famed series, thanks to the excellent casting of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula – though it’s notable that in a nine-movie series, once you discount footage from earlier films repeated in later films to remind the audience of what’s previously transpired, Cushing and Lee only faced off against each other in three of the nine movies in the series; two of the movies has Cushing’s Van Helsing facing either a different vampire or a different actor cast as Dracula, and the other four movies have Christopher Lee as Dracula without Cushing being involved.

As with other Hammer series, the sequels may well be the most interesting ones to explore – after all, once you’ve done your riff on the original Bram Stoker story, it becomes necessary to come up with your own tales. And as usual for Hammer, the results are… mixed.

The Brides of Dracula

Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a schoolteacher from Paris, has been offered a post at a posh girl’s school in Transylvania. As she is travelling to the school, her superstitious coachman (Michael Ripper) abandons her – coach drivers are extremely unreliable in this sort of thing, aren’t they? Alas, there’s no room at the inn, but she receives an invite from local aristocrat Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), the local aristocrat, to stay at her castle overnight.

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What If He Was Me, and I Was Called Frankenstein?

A big chunk of Hammer Studios’ output was essentially 1960s Britain’s answer to what Universal Studios had been doing with the horror canon in previous decades. Whereas the Universal horror franchises tended to kick off with a really strong implementation of the original concept, ran off some strong sequels, and eventually ran into diminishing returns, it actually seems to me that the various Hammer sequels to their adaptations of The MummyDraculaFrankenstein are less interesting than the sequels that followed.

After all, the movies which kicked off those series were made early on in Hammer’s run, while they were still developing their distinctive in-house style, and by and large followed the plot of the original source material in broad brushstrokes, with the usual decisions about what features to cut, what to include, and what to add any adaptation must consider. It feels to me like the celebrated Hammer Horror style really got going once they started in on the sequels, where Hammer’s writers and directors cooked up a range of original stories and took the various series in unexpected directions.

Take, for example, some of their later Frankenstein sequels…

Frankenstein Created Woman

This 1967 Terence Fisher effort, the fourth in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, opens with an execution by guillotine. The guillotine is set up in the middle of fucking nowhere, which seems a bizarre place to put a device intended for public executions, but the rural scenery adds an interesting folk horror sort of aesthetic to things.

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Hammer Rides Out

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

One of the best value DVD boxed sets I’ve ever obtained was The Ultimate Hammer Collection, which features 21 selected horror, thriller, and fantasy movies from the archives of Hammer Studios. Focusing on their heyday from the 1960s and 1970s, the set includes a strange combination of undeniable classics, interesting obscurities, and utter turkeys; I suspect rights issues might have prevented the inclusion of some of Hammer’s earlier works. (For instance, their original takes on Dracula and Frankenstein are entirely absent, both those series represented only by a random selection of sequels.)

The set originally retailed for over £100, but for a while now it’s been obtainable at substantially lower prices, thanks in part to the waning of the DVD format in the face of the inexorable march of Blu-Ray and streaming services; when I bought it the price averaged to about £1.50 per movie, which was too tempting to ignore. Despite the lack of some important early works, it’s got a bunch of high-quality movies which showcase the Hammer house style (which was so distinctive that “Hammer horror” practically became its own subgenre) – as well as a clutch of films which either demonstrate the weakness of the formula or expose what can go horribly wrong (or terribly right) when the formula is deviated from. That makes it the perfect fodder for when I challenge myself to post something horror-related to Ferretbrain daily for the entire month of October (what the fuck am I thinking?).

Two films that really highlight the extremes of the set are the Dennis Wheatley adaptations included – The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter, both starring Christopher Lee. Wheatley’s garish horror novels could almost have been custom-written to be adapted by Hammer, since they shared with Hammer’s house style a weird combination of a very colourful and often lurid imagination and values which wouldn’t offend the British middle classes. As it stands, one of these films is a loyal adaptation of the source material that is an excellent example of the house style, whilst the other deviates wildly from its source novel, the Hammer ethos, and all standards of quality and good taste

Lee’s association with these films is no coincidence – as well as being the Hammer regular he was, he was actually the one who convinced Wheatley to let Hammer option three of Wheatley’s works – The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, and The Satanist – in 1963. It wasn’t until 1968 that the first one could be adapted – Hammer didn’t expect that they would be able to get the content past the censors beforehand – but it was such a runaway success that Hammer immediately… sat around for 8 years before putting out another adaptation of Wheatley’s populist demons-and-black-magic novels. Let it never be said that Hammer are highly regarded for their business decisions…

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