Movies

How George Romero Helped Kill Hammer Horror (And Ate Its Brain)

For a little over a decade, the small, London-based Hammer Film Productions, dominated the horror-movie market. Their movies were released so regularly and had such consistent elements, they came to be known as a genre unto themselves — Hammer Horror. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw Hammer’s influence carry over into films like Trog and Tales from the Crypt, which used the same rich colors and stoic sense of delivery. But, Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s ultra-low budget black-and-white movie in which the dead rose from the grave, would in time eclipse Hammer in influence. They were shocking, subversive, and carried more than a little social commentary — all of which put them at odds with the prevailing horror trends. But, in time, trends would bend Romero’s way.

Hammer’s Beginnings

A studio too poor to afford any stars, Hammer had been turning out low-budget films since the mid-’30s. In 1955, the studio released The Quartermass XPeriment, a monster movie based on an already successful TV series that had aired on the BBC, and its fortunes started to change. It did well enough at the box office that Hammer produced two sequels in 1956 and 1957.

Hammer then turned its attention to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a property that had already been in the public domain for years. The result was 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein, which cast Peter Cushing as the doctor, and Christopher Lee as the monster, the first in a series of several films where the two would play opposite one another. They teamed up again for The Mummy, and most notably as Dr. Van Helsing and Count Dracula, respectively, in a series of films that kicked off with Dracula (a.k.a. The Horror of Dracula) in 1958. Lee, over more than a half-dozen Hammer films, had become the era’s definitive Count Dracula, the first actor who’s made the role his own since Bela Lugosi played the character in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation.

Hammer’s films shocked audiences at the time. The British Board of Film Censors, the British equivalent to the MPAA, described their content as featuring “shots of pulsating obscenity, hideous scars, hideous sightless faces, etc, etc. It is keeping on and on in the same vein that makes [it] so outrageous.” Hammer didn’t just show blood, they showed it in brilliant Eastman color. Along with their unprecedented levels of sex and violence, the movies had a remarkably consistent sense of style, even if their low budget required them to essentially utilize the same setting. They also consistently performed well enough at the box office year after year, despite a shortage of critical acclaim.

A New Era

Then, by autumn 1968, audiences had a chance to see both Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead. British aristocrats living in castles and fending off the supernatural didn’t draw them in like they used to. Polanski’s foray into horror helped secure its place in the Hollywood mainstream, but it was Romero’s use of both gore and violence that made Roger Ebert note its effect on viewers:

“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe 9 years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.

I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.”

The result was as profound as it was off-putting. In the years that followed, movies like The Exorcist in 1973 and The Omen in 1976 continued to up the shocks. As increased gore and violence slowly worked their way into the norm of the horror genre, Night of the Living Dead continued to build its audience year after year in drive-ins, double features, and midnight screenings.

When first released, The New York Times spent all of 100 words deriding the film as nothing more than “nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.” But while most critics were initially dismissive of Romero’s film, over time, some came to appreciate the film’s social commentary. Romero has said his “stories have always been more about the humans and the mistakes that they’ve made and the zombies are just sort of out there.”

Hammer’s Inelegant Demise

Eventually, that movie “made by some people in Pittsburgh” managed to slowly help bring about a change in what audiences expected from a horror film. This left Hammer, with no intention of pushing the limits with its on-screen violence a second time, to try and rebrand themselves. Among some of the efforts was the misguided Karnstein Trilogy — The Vampire Lovers, Lust For a Vampire, and Twins of Evil — which succeeded in pushing the limits of on-screen lesbian romance, but little else. They tried recapturing their lost youth market with movies like Dracula A.D. 1972, set in contemporary, “swinging” London. Finally, there was Hammer’s team-up with the Shaw Brothers, which resulted in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in 1974, a horror/kung-fu movie hybrid. The studio’s death knell came when it hired Elliot Gould and Cybill Shepherd to star in a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes in 1979. This nearly bankrupted Hammer, which closed its doors by the mid-1980s.

By now, Night of the Living Dead has spawned five sequels and inspired a generation of ‘zombies as a metaphor’ productions, including video games, and The Walking Dead, one of TV’s most popular and talked about programs.

Still, Hammer’s influence lingers in films like The Others in 2001 and Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and the studio itself has enjoyed a revival via such new Hammer productions as The Woman in Black. Hammer Horror is more than a chapter in horror-movie history. Its impact and influence, while not always obvious, remains undying.

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