Hammering In Desperation

The debacle of To the Devil a Daughter was by far from Hammer’s first attempt to shake itself free from the artistic rut it had driven itself into. Although it churned out plenty of old-style films following its classic formula during the early 1970s, the same period also saw Hammer attempting a range of experiments to see how it could shake up its habits and thereby rekindle its fortunes. There were flirtations with more sexually explicit material in The Vampire Lovers, various attempts to transplant classic monsters to modern day settings such as Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb or Dracula A.D. 1972, recasting of beloved series as horror-comedies (Horror of Frankenstein), and more besides.

One of these experiments involved producing more in the way of psychological horror. Despite being overwhelmingly associated with supernatural horror, Hammer had always produced a trickle of non-supernatural fare, some of which had been received quite well – for instance, the Bette Davis vehicle The Nanny from 1965 was both uncharacteristically gritty by Hammer’s standards and also something of a critical and commercial success. Could a shift in focus to more mundane terrors help restore Hammer’s credibility? Let’s take a look at two 1972 attempts…

Fear In the Night

This was originally released as part of a double bill with Straight On Till Morning entitled Women In Terror!, though to be honest I think this was a misstep – both movies are heavy enough going that I feel like watching one after the other would be too much, and it would have been better to pair each of them with something lighter as a palette-cleanser.

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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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