Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet
Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror
Written and directed by Ted Newsom
Narrated by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee
S’more Entertainment / Bosustow Media Group / Hammer Films / Act 3 – Heidelberg Films / MVD Entertainment
100 minutes, 1994 / 2015 / 2018
Before I started watching this update of a reissued 1994 British documentary television show about arguably one of the three most important horror film companies in the 20th Century – the other two being Universal Pictures and American International Pictures (AIP) – I tried to think back to the first Hammer Film Production I can remember seeing in the theater. It could have been She, The Nanny (which began my crush on Pamela Franklin for a couple of decades), Die! Die! My Darling!, or One Million Years BC (all released in 1965). However, I have a vague memory of seeing The Creeping Unknown as a second-bill feature years after its original release as Quatermass Xperiment (1955), probably as a back-up for one of the AIP Poe releases with Vincent Price; they helped cement my love of the genre through the decades. Since then, I saw so many of their films and franchises, Dracula and Frankenstein, especially.
It makes good sense that the narrators of this documentary are the biggest stars Hammer helped introduce to Western cinema: Christopher Lee (d. 2015) who was best known as Dracula in Hammer Films, and the man with the world’s greatest cheekbones, Peter Cushing (1994, soon after this was released; I was a member of his British Fan Club), who reimagined by Dr. Frankenstein and Van Helsing. It should be noted that Cushing’s career dates back to appearing in the Laurel and Hardy feature, Chumps at Oxford.
Wisely, it starts off right at the beginning, with how the name Hammer originated (which I did not know, or perhaps did not remember), into its formation as a viable force during the post-World War II period, and how they attained their admirable talent, such as director Freddie Francis.
There is a nice compendium of archival footage and early ‘90s modern interviews, so many of the stars of the early releases, as well as the classic ones, such as Francis (d. 2007), Hazel Court (d. 2008; one of the few to be in both Hammer and AIP films), Ingrid Pitt (d. 2010) and Veronica Carlson are present for first-hand accounts. We see original footage and modern interviews of both actors and crew. Also enjoyable are interviews with some American directors, and how they were influenced by the Hammer collection, such as Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and Martin Scorsese.
A point they make here but don’t dwell on (consider the name of the documentary, after all), is that early on there was hardly a genre that Hammer didn’t tackle, including swashbuckling, crime dramas, and science fiction. It was the Quatermass mash-up of sci-fi and horror that got them noticed to an Ameican audience, which is where the larger money was, and from there it was the revitalization and reboots of the classic Universal monsters where the studio became financially sound. Peter Cushing says at one point, paraphrasing the name of one of his films, “Frankenstein Created Hammer.”
Rather than follow the releases merely chronologically, wisely break the film up into “groups.” For example, there is a whole segment that just focuses on the Frankenstein films, some more successful in quality than others, in my opinion, and thankfully everyone looks at it both nostalgically and with a sense of whimsy, including David Prowse (he would go on to play Darth Vader in the original three Star Wars films) and Cushing himself, who comments at some point that his hair in a later film looked like Helen Hayes. Needless to say, this is an exciting part of the film for me.
After Frankie-Baby, there’s “The Count Also Rises,” discussing, well… Dracula (are you surprised? If you are, you need to see this and learn your horror history, Jack… or Jill). Actually, I do agree and disagree on a point they make in this segment. They comment that what makes Lee’s Dracula so special is the level of sexuality he brings to the character. Well, yes, onscreen he definitely made some in the audience swoon (both female and male, from those I’ve talked to), but to imply that Lugosi’s Big-D wasn’t sexy is just wrong. Lugosi was a major sex symbol in the 1930s and ‘40s (pre-drug addiction), and while there was no blatant sexuality on screen as there was with Lee (e.g., a woman lying in bed pulling down her neckline to be bitten), Lugosi’s portrayal just burned with sensuality, using his voice – as is true with Lee’s baritone – and eyes, specifically. Can I get an Amen?
Younger people may think of Lee as Saruman, but for those “kids” of my g-g-generation, Lee is Dracula and Dracula is Lee; and I say this with the utmost respect and admiration. When he plays other roles, such as Lord Summerisle in the wickedly great The Wicker Man (1973; not the Nic Cage travesty remake), it’s easy to accept. But when Lee’s name is mentioned, it’s his cape and red eyes that come to mind. The Dracula-based series was also extremely popular for the company, though Lee pulled the plug on himself continuing the role after the cartoonish and garish Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). He explains why here, which is good to hear dripping from his lips directly.
The second half of the documentary is a bit more esoteric, covering many bases. For example, there is a look at a few films that did not make money, such as the sensationalist courtroom drama Never Take Candy From Strangers (1960) and the sci-fi thriller The Damned (1963) to how Hammer had one of the first full-time female producers with Aida Young (though Freddie Francis sorta poo-poos her role). On more a more technical side there is discussion about how Hammer used exceptional crews and eventually had their own look (they definitely did), and how they managed to score major talent, such as Oliver Reed, from both the UK and the US.
Adaptations of classics (e.g., Phantom of the Opera in 1962 and The Devil Rides Out in 1968) are discussed, including an interview with my personal favorite horror writer, Richard Matheson (d. 2013).
Now, Hammer kinda hit its stride, especially with me, in the late 1960s and in the early ‘70s, and I have no doubt looking back that part of it had do so with what is covered in a chapter here called “Hammer Glamour.” The stars were good looking; there were bountiful cleavage, and a strong sense of both horror sexuality and sensuality. Films like Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) were fine examples of what fed a teenage boy the equivalent of what many superhero films do now with the same formula using Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Wisely, this film looks at both the good (marketing) and bad (sexism/gender politics, as well as the overuse of the theme of sexy lesbian vampires*) of this aspect, though because it was filmed in the early ‘90s, perhaps not as deeply as it might since the emergence of the #metoo current history.
This logically leads into the prehistoric releases that seemed to begin with One Million Years BC, including interviews with its two major stars, Raquel Welch and the underrated Martine Beswick; the latter would go on to other dinosaur-and-human releases that seemed to come out quite often, and were often over-acted and over-melodramatic in joyful exuberance. There are also a couple of brief interviews with the man who designed many of them, the king of pixilation himself, Ray Harryhausen (d. 2013).
This was actually getting close to the end of the Hammer phenomenon, with their the horrible but (unintentionally) hilarious last horror film To the Devil and Daughter in 1975, and the 1979 horrible and not hilarious (unintentionally) comedy The Lady Vanishes. But thanks to extended footage added to this new version of the documentary, we are told of its somewhat limited revival in 2008, with the likes of Let Me In (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012).
This is a fun and informative way to spend a couple of hours of horror film history, and with the 40 minutes of added footage, all the more bettah. It’s well thought out, extensive in its clips and interviews, and pretty thorough.
I do need to add a comment, however, about something I felt was left out. In the late 1960s and through the ‘70s, Hammer wisely chose to go into the home distribution market, well before the advent of VHS. It was common to see 8mm and Super 8mm short versions of Hammer Films in 50’ (4 minutes) and 200’ (15 minutes) versions, both with sound and silent. I still have a batch of the silent ones somewhere, though no projector anymore. This was some solid marketing.
* It should be noted that one of the very first horror stories ever published in modern history, even before Dracula, was the 1871 Joseph Le Fanu novella, Carmella, about a lesbian vampire.