When I was first falling in love with horror movies, my main supplier was Dr. Paul Bearer on WTOG, Channel 44, in St. Petersburg. When they started rotating Hammer films into the line-up in the mid-’70s, I remember thinking how much crazier they were than the ’50s films or the classic Universal monster movies. “The Gorgon.’ “I, Monster.” “The Curse Of Frankenstein.” “Dracula, Prince Of Darkness.” “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.” “Brides of Dracula.” “Curse of The Werewolf.” I vividly remember each of those films when they screened, and I remember the impact they had on me as I gradually pieced together Hammer as an entity.
Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters was a great source for learning about the great British horror studios, and I was smitten with the occasional glimpses I’d get in the magazine of the wild poster art for those films. I love British quads, which we don’t really have an equivalent to in our own poster system, and I love painted posters of all types. Having not grown up in England, though, my exposure to the Hammer posters has been limited, which is one of the reasons I was delighted when the new book The Art Of Hammer showed up at my house.
The other reason is because the book more than lives up to its potential, and is overstuffed with amazing images and great artwork.
Marcus Hearns is the author and editor of the book, and he’s done a great job of curating an overview of the way Hammer approached each of their films, the way genres ebbed and flowed over the years, and the differences between how the films were sold in America and how they were sold in the UK. And while there’s not a ton of text here, I still think this is a carefully constructed book, designed to really give you a sense of the way Hammer evolved as a company from the ’50s through the end of the ’70s. With Hammer Films ready to make a comeback (anyone else get a chill when they saw the new Hammer logo in front of “Let Me In”?), it’s the perfect time to really try to set a context for who they are in genre history. With this book, Hearns uses the images, the iconography, to remind you of Hammer’s highs and lows.
The reason I wanted to include a gallery with this piece is because describing a movie is difficult enough, but describing a movie poster seems hopeless. These pieces of art are meant to be enjoyed, studied. Because they were from a tradition of painted posters, many of the Hammer images are beautiful, worth closer inspection. Images of Oliver Reed from “Curse of the Werewolf” or Christopher Lee in his various incarnations as Dracula… these were burnt in for me when I was very young and I love the way the Hammer artists have captured the heightened, perfect versions of these films.
That’s what I’ve always loved most about movie posters. The promise. There’s nothing better than when you see a great poster and you get that flash of imagination and anticipation about what a movie might be. About what it could be. The best posters are the ones that make you imagine an entire film based on a single image. Reading this book, I realized how few Hammer films I’ve ever really seen, just because so many of them never had any real distribution here on home video. It makes me feel like I did when I was a kid and I was just starting to fall in love with movies. I’d read books about movies, and I’d make lists of movies I wanted to see, movies that people were talking about in magazines or to my parents or that were seeping into pop culture in other ways.
One of the joys of being a film nerd is that constant sense of hunting down the movies that you know you want to see, one by one, enjoying each as a comparison between the anticipation and the experience, and then moving on to that next one on the list. It’s perpetual, and a true film fan is never done with that list. How could you be? This year, as of the day after Thanksgiving, I’ve seen 434 movies, 230 of which were new releases in 2010. That’s a TON of movies, and yet that’s not everything that came out this year. Not even close. I watch a lot of older films, some for the first time, some to revisit a favorite or see if something plays differently at this point in my life or to review a home video release. And what I watch in a year is a mere fragment of a single percentage point of what’s available out there now. It’s an ocean of media available to us these days, and so the only way to really deal with it is to follow whims, enjoy it all, and constantly be curious.
Looking at this book makes me anxious for the upcoming line of Hammer titles on Blu-ray from Synapse Films, starting with “Vampire Circus.” It makes me eager to fix that particular gap in my film knowledge. And it rekindles my love of the genuinely artistic movie poster, the great painted art of the past, and my irritation with the lack of imagination in much of today’s movie marketing. It’s a great gift for any movie nerd, and a wonderful addition to my reference library.
For a special gallery of Hammer poster art, click here.
“The Art Of Hammer” is available now. Seriously. Get one.