Hammer-Rama: Introduction, by Alexander Miller
Whenever film historians talk about the “magic” of the studio era, when the big five dominated Hollywood, the word is somewhat lost on me. It’s not from a lack of understanding or a frame of reference, the appreciation and admiration for the classics will always be there. The only time I feel a sense of wonder associated with a particular studio is when the name Hammer comes up. Known for their massively successful thread of horror films, however, the famed studio made movies in almost every genre, their horror films are easily their best, but their noir, sci-fi, and various other thrillers are quality experiences as well.
Hammer originated as a small distribution company named Exclusive Films, founded by Enrique Carreras and William Hinds. Hinds was a jeweler who took an interest in acting and comedy. His son Anthony Hinds recalls “he was a successful businessman and a failed comedian. He failed because he wasn’t really funny.” In 1934 William Hinds adopted his stage moniker Will Hammer and named his company Hammer Productions. A handful of movies were helmed, but the lack of creativity between the two kept Hammer Productions on the backburner.
It wasn’t until the founder’s sons, Anthony Hinds and Michael Carreras, entered the picture that the small studio would hit their stride. Film-noir pictures gave the studio some notoriety, but their adoption of the Dick Barton radio serial encouraged them to make a series of movies based on the radio show, and in the shadow of that success Exclusive films became Hammer. By the late fifties, Hammer struck big with Nigel Neale’s Quatermass series (aired on the BBC beforehand). Once they had remade the Universal horror films (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy) the very words “Hammer Horror” became iconic.
The long and extensive world of Hammer is like a genre unto itself. The familial company of actors, crew members, directors, producers, and composers dedicated themselves to making quality films. Unlike the Corman School of B-movies, Hammer wasn’t solely interested in making a buck. The heads at Hammer sought out to make good movies, and for the most part they did in almost every genre. They gave careers to screen giants such as Oliver Reed, Veronica Carlson, Michael Gough, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, not to mention character actors such as George Pastell, Michael Ripper, Andrew Kier, and Andre Morrell. A few of their recurring premier directors were Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis, Seth Holt, Val Guest and the incomparable Terence Fisher had created some of the studios finest pictures. Christopher Lee once said that “ the real stars of Hammer were behind the camera,” special effects from Les Bowie could create worlds with next to nothing – set designer Bernard Robinson transformed the famous one level Bray Studio into Victorian Era London, or Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s herculean ability to churn out scripts and James Bernard, who could get booming epic scores from a small orchestra, proved that Hammer’s mission statement to make quality movies was a promise they would keep. They bought in productions on time, on budget, and were commercially profitable in the British and American markets. Michael Carrera said, “The critics never forgave us for being successful, there’s no doubt about that,” but the impression of these movies can speak louder than the critics and censors.
Hammer went on to make some of the most influential horror films, influencing generations and leaving an indelible brand on cinema as we know it. A cult item for some, a curiosity to others and a doctrine for many, Hammer has made some of most visually arresting, and transgressive films. Hammer is one of few examples of a studio that works as a genre, whether it’s horror, thriller, noir, sci-fi, or anything else under the sun, they have a distinctive brand that few have replicated and none have equaled.