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Veteran Haunt Consultant Scott Swenson on Gamification and the Future of the Haunt Industry

Howl-o-ScreamWe interview 30-year haunt and entertainment industry veteran, Scott Swenson, about his legendary career and current projects!

Scott Swenson

When Scott Swenson looks into his crystal ball, the haunt industry tends to lean in to get a glimpse of what he sees emerging from the mists. As the former Director of Creative Services at Busch Gardens Tampa, Swenson was part of the team that developed Howl-O-Scream and acted as either director or producer for the first 15 years of the event. “In that time, I had written over 150 haunts and scare zones and trained thousands of actors,” he admits.

Swenson now sees a new trend headed towards the haunt and theatrical attraction industry: Gamification. “Interactive was the first buzzword that I remember hearing,” says Swenson, “and then everyone started talking about ‘immersive’ experiences, and now the next buzzword, I think, will be gamified.”

“Not just in entertainment either,” he continues, “It will be in marketing and advertising as well. Gamification is a phenomenon that takes game/escape room folks and haunters and smashes them together. It takes advantage of the idea that people want to go from point A to point B. Everybody wants to win. If I do this, then I will be rewarded with that.”

“One of the best examples I can think of right now is ZTag,” says Swenson. “It’s like electronic tag where everybody plays as either a human, a zombie or a doctor. Everyone wears a badge or a wristband with a screen monitoring your health. If you get too close to a zombie, your health shrinks until you become one unless you can find a doctor to heal you.”

ZTag

Swenson discusses topics like Gamification and many others on his “A Scott in the DarkPodcast which has recently surpassed 30 episodes. “Someone at a seminar came up to me and said, ‘I can’t get out to all of the conventions. Why don’t you do a Podcast and share all the information you’ve gained over the years?’ Since I started doing it, it has been picked up by the Haunted Attraction Network and it’s also on iTunes.”

“When I left Busch Gardens five years ago, I became an independent contractor. I took all of that passion for haunting and I became an independent consultant. I started Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC, and that has just exploded. I’ve now worked for haunted attractions as far north as Edmonton in Alberta, Canada and as far south as Tampa.”

Swenson wasn’t born a haunter, however. “I grew up outside of Chicago, and I was what they would call a chicken as a kid. I remember when I was probably 9 or 10 years old, my friends were sitting around the living room watching “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on a Sunday afternoon. I sat next to the TV watching THEM watch the movie because I was too scared to look at the screen. I was watching their faces to see when and how they got scared, which is telling now if you think about it.”

“They knew I didn’t want to see the creature, so they tricked me into turning around and looking at the TV when it was on screen,” confesses Swenson. “Instead of being shocked, my first reaction was, ‘Wait a minute! There’s a zipper! We can do better than that!’.”

Scott Swenson

Howl-O-Scream
Swenson has consequently believed that it was his skittish nature that has made him a better haunter. “I know what it’s like to be scared, which makes it easier for me to scare other people. I understand what fear feels like, so I know how to elicit that in someone else.”

“When we first started Howl-O-Scream in 2000, we targeted our base audience of young families. The resulting guest reviews and comments were terrible. What we discovered was that if you have an event that is open until midnight or 1AM, you don’t need to target kids! So we decided to go toe-to-toe with Universal Studios.”

“We didn’t have the intellectual properties that Universal had, but we did have a big, open 5,000 square foot space to come up with our own creative stories and ideas,” says Swenson. “Our model was based on Knotts Berry Farm. What I’ve discovered over the years is that it’s fine to be inspired by another great haunt. We are in an industry that has the ability to self-support—and we should.”

“If guests go to a bad haunt early in the season, they won’t go to another,” testifies Swenson. “But if they go to a good haunt, they will go looking for the next big scare.”

Swenson’s advice to new, would-be haunters is to bridge the gap between business strategy and creative impulse. “The first question I would ask someone interested in going into the haunted attraction industry is why they want to do it. If the answer was, ‘I love it and I’m passionate about it,’ I would say go for it, but put together a solid business plan first. If the answer was, ‘I want to make a killing financially and then sell it and retire,’ I would say that unless you’re 18 years old, you’re not going to get where you want to be before you’d want to retire.”

Scott Swenson

When it comes to Swenson’s theory of Gamification, he sites attractions like Evermore and a company called 5 Wits that builds immersive live-action adventures with locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia. “They’re not really escape rooms, but they’re adventure rooms. These experiences are amazing. They have theme park quality scenic designs and electronics. Never once do you have to figure out a math problem, but you do have to do a lot of activities to move to the next room.”

Gamification is a term I expect to hear a lot more over the next couple of years. Stay tuned to Swenson’s “A Scott in the DarkPodcast for more looks into his haunt industry crystal ball.

The Phantom of The Ville

Elementary, My Dear Watson

Sherlock the Game is Now

We interview Nick Moran, creative director of Sherlock: The Game is Now, to learn about a London escape game with a unique twist.

Nick Moran, Sherlock the Game is Now

As an avid video game enthusiast, a young Nick Moran dreamed of bringing that experience – as he calls it, “a reality operating on its own rules” – to the real world. When escape games started taking the world by storm, he realized that he finally had his chance.

Before we delve into the curiosity that is Sherlock: The Game is Now, let us step back in time a few years to reflect upon its predecessor, an unassuming little game called Time Run.

Running Through Time

The concept of Time Run was simple: time travel researcher Dr. Fox tasked your group with travelling across the various eras of time (hence the name), retrieving vital relics that are too dangerous for the good doctor to retrieve herself. As Moran puts it, each group of prospective time travelers who paid a visit to the doctor’s lab would become little more than glorified cannon fodder for her temporal studies. Each environment had its own distinct relic to find, with the ultimate goal being to gather them all and return to Dr. Fox’s research lab in one piece.

In a unique twist, each game had multiple endings depending on how well you performed. Collect all of the relics, and your adventure through time and space would have a distinctly positive result. But miss a few along the way, and your victory may come with a few kinks. According to Moran, the goal of having multiple endings was not to put the player down for a less-than-perfect game, but rather to encourage the player to try again and find what they might have missed out on the first time around, so as to receive a complete, unabridged experience.

Sherlock the Game is Now

The time travel theme ultimately gave Moran more freedom in terms of theming than a typical escape game. While there were two separate game options available in Time Run, each was able to retain the same basic concept, allowing for two completely different experiences without each needing a totally distinct story. It also allowed for a pervasive sense of anticipation throughout the game, as players would never know what to expect next. For example, they could go from exploring an ancient Mayan temple to rummaging through a medieval castle, and from there move on to plundering a pirate ship, all within the same game.

From Time Travel to Modern-Day Sleuthing

Just one day after Time Run’s grand opening, part of the creative team involved in the BBC program Sherlock decided to take Dr. Fox’s temporal adventure for a whirl. The experience so impressed the team that they immediately approached Moran with the proposal of creating an escape game based on the hit show. Moran jumped at the opportunity, and after a few years of meticulous planning and design, Sherlock: The Game is Now opened to the world in December 2018, becoming one of the exceedingly few escape games in the world tied to an existing IP.

The overall premise of the game shares a few similarities with its predecessor: groups are hired by a shadowy organization known only as “The Network”, which has taken to enlisting the services of ordinary citizens in order to help it with some of its extensive case backlog – namely, the cases that are too dangerous and/or time-consuming for the Network’s top agents to take on (starting to sound familiar?). Through extensive video segments, players work with various characters from the Sherlock TV show in order to solve the mystery at hand.

Sherlock the Game is Now

Designing Sherlock: The Game is Now entailed some unique challenges that weren’t present when developing Time Run. For starters, when designing Time Run, the sky was the limit in terms of theming, largely thanks to the game’s fantastic setting. Sherlock, on the other hand, is firmly grounded in reality, meaning that everything, from settings to puzzles, had to remain realistic at all times. This meant that some of the staple tropes of escape games, like randomly-placed combinations and overly elaborate puzzles, couldn’t be used, since they would break the immersion that is at the core of the Sherlock experience.

When designing each aspect of the game, Moran would frequently resort to the five W’s (Who, What, Where, When, Why), asking himself questions such as “Who put this here?” “Why is this here?” “Why is it this way instead of some simpler, less cryptic way?” If at any point the answer to such questions didn’t fit the world of Sherlock or was too farfetched to be believable, the concept in question would be immediately reworked if not scrapped altogether.

A Lasting Experience

Overall, all the hard work and dedication pays dividends, as it creates an escape game experience truly unlike any other. As Moran states, “Whereas the stories of most escape games are more or less throwaway – it’s present throughout the game, but more or less vanishes once the game is over – Sherlock leaves a lasting impression.” Part of its pervasiveness is the familiarity of the theme: fans with the TV show feel like they’re a part of something they already invested in outside of the game. By fine-tuning every aspect of the game to make it fit unequivocally with the setting, it helps players feel as if they’re fully immersed in a much larger experience. Incidentally, the theme also helps draw in players who otherwise might not attempt an escape game otherwise, making Sherlock an ideal gateway to the medium.

Sherlock the Game is Now

Overall, that immersion and lasting impression is the core behind every detail of Sherlock’s design, reflecting Moran’s design philosophy: if a game is low-tech, isn’t all that impressive visually, but it’s designed in such a way as to make players feel engrossed and truly a part of its world, they’ll come out of that game with a much more lasting and positive impression than if they were to play a game that’s flashy and high-tech, but does nothing to get players invested in the story it’s trying to tell.

What’s Next?

With as mammoth of an endeavor as Sherlock: The Game is Now has proven itself to be, Moran himself admits that thinking about the future can be daunting at times. However, whatever the future may hold, Moran’s ultimate goal is simple: to continue creating cool, fun experiences that participants can make lasting memories with.

And with that, consider the Case of the Enthralling Escape Endeavor officially closed.

To learn more about Sherlock: The Game is Now, visit www.thegameisnow.com.

Netherworld’s Ben Armstrong Discusses the Pains of Haunt Adolescence and the Future of the Haunt Industry!

Netherworld

We interview the 20-plus year co-owner of Atlanta’s Netherworld Haunted House about graduating from hobbyist to professional haunter.

Ben Armstrong, Netherworld

Last haunt season, Atlanta’s biggest haunted house and one of the most popular attractions in the entire Halloween industry moved from its’ original location to a new building in Stone Mountain, GA. “We’ve always wanted to own a building, own our own land,” says Netherworld Haunted House co-owner Ben Armstrong. “because that’s always the preferred situation to be in.”

“Change of ownership in our original location meant the new guy wanted more money, and we had already started looking for a new location, but the news broke a year before we moved,” admits Armstrong. “All of our employees were like, ‘What’s going on?’ causing some confusion the night the news broke, but as it turned out the leak ultimately made it easier to promote the move because there was so much interest in the news.”

Netherworld currently operates three escape rooms year-round at the new location with themes including “Sasquatch,” “Nosferatu” and “Haunted”, as well as a $5 upcharge Monster Museum made up of elaborate displays and movie props collected from Armstrong’s work in the Atlanta TV and movie production business. “We are very tied into the Atlanta film industry and rent out a lot of pieces to local productions,” says Armstrong. “Our Monster Museum contains props and oddities that include movie costumes, Tom Cruise’s airplane from ‘American Made,’ tons of space sets from ‘Passengers’ staring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two dark ride carts from ‘Hell Fest’ and a lot of props from ‘The Hunger Games’.”

Netherworld

The main attraction at Netherworld, however, is clearly its’ massive seasonal haunted house. “Netherworld is an extremely thematically based attraction,” explains Armstrong, “and even in its’ inception there was backstory. Now every year, a new backstory is created. I start with an idea and then I write a longish narrative, then a boiled down version. Then I reduce it to a three-sentence version and then a single tagline.”

“You have to make it simple enough for the customer to grasp it. I used to have a theory I called the 80/20 Rule. Eighty percent of your customers just want the basics: They want to be scared. They want to have fun. They have a sense of quality, but they’re not really fixated on the details. The other twenty percent are focused on the details and want to know the whole story behind it.”

Over a 20-year period, Netherworld has set the bar not only for haunted attraction quality, but for financial viability. “This industry is built on dreams & fantasies and filled with people who want to create something and want to scare people, and often they might be creating products that are not financially viable.”

“When you first start out,” Armstrong explains, “you can have a smaller attendance and give people a really good show with minimal stuff; All actors, all atmosphere. When you have tons of people going through your attraction, all of that breaks down. The actors can’t keep up. That’s when you require a lot of spectacle or ‘eye candy’ as they call it.”

Netherworld

Netherworld

“That point is as difficult a phase for a haunted house as adolescence or teenagerhood is for a human being. Making it to adulthood is the biggest challenge most attractions will face and not everybody makes the transition successfully. You want to scale back the number of people you let into your attraction so that you can provide a quality show, but if you can’t get more people through the show, you can’t make the money to make the show better.”

“A lot of people struggle with getting passed that point. If you can get to the point of having a highly attended show and still maintain guest satisfaction, then your growth can be great, but it’s a difficult phase to work through. Getting over the hump is tough.”

“It’s a challenge every haunt will face on peak nights,” Armstrong admits. “Every haunt generally has three or four nights per season when the wheels start falling off of the vehicle. Everybody is tired and everything starts breaking. That’s when people are less satisfied. They’ve waited in line longer than they were in the haunt. If you try to time them out so that they don’t run into other groups in the haunt then they end up waiting in line for 4 hours and nothing they will see inside is going to be good enough.”

“I’ve seen haunt reviewers say in their reviews, ‘Oh, I saw another group while I was going through the haunt,’ and they grade you down for it. As a result, I’ve seen haunters in some markets react by saying, ‘I can’t tolerate running my haunt where anyone ever sees another group.’ Those people will never make enough money to succeed. That simple mentality means they are going to be hobbyists the rest of their lives.”

Netherworld

“I’ve seen major attractions manage to continue on this way,” Armstrong continues, “but they put so much back into it making it better that they can’t make a living with what the attraction brings in. They’re actually making it better than it should be. So much effort and so many resources go into creating an event that are all done for free. Any business with a pure profit motivation could never do it as well as these haunters do it. Maybe they could market it better, but they could never make a better attraction.”

“We used to have a concept we called Crank Mode VS Theatrical Mode, but that’s very hard to maintain. What we’ve ultimately decided to do was to make the show a constant barrage to the senses. It ceases to become, in my opinion, a horror movie and becomes an action movie. It’s hard to do suspense when you have a hoard of people in the attraction so most of the interaction with the actors happens on the outside at that point in the queue line or in the front or exit of the show. We want sensory overload throughout.”

Armstrong is convinced that the future of the haunted attraction industry is strong. “We are living in an Experience Economy. A lot of people growing up now are not as interested in having possessions. They’re more interested in experiences. I did a whole seminar on how people just want to go places and take pictures of themselves. People will go out just to have experiences as part of their history on social media.”

“I think haunted houses are good solid theater and people want to have a real experience. A lot of people talk about virtual reality, but I think what we’re creating is better than virtual reality. It’s hyper reality. The future is strong but it’s an extremely hard industry, and there is constant turnover because people come into it with grandiose dreams of success.”

Netherworld

 “Haunted houses are in some ways interactive, but more often than not, they’re passive. You experience them,” admits Armstrong. “That’s what’s more fun about escape rooms. I think in the future people will be looking for more intermediary things where they can actually interact. I feel we’ll see more hybrids, but that’s very difficult with a high put through. You can’t have a huge cast.”

“We’ve been experimenting with events where you use laser guns to shoot the monsters, which is very basic but you are interacting. You can be killed by the monsters and your gun will shut off and say, ‘You’re dead!’, so all of a sudden you feel the stakes in the game.”

Armstrong concludes with this piece of advice. “Unless you’re serving an underserved population or have a unique thing to sell, your chances of success are limited because this is a huge market. How are you different?”

The Phantom of The Ville

A Day at an Intriguing Museum

Museum of IntrigueWe interview Nicole Ginsburg, co-owner of the Museum of Intrigue, to learn about one of the most unique interactive puzzling experiences ever devised.

Museum of Intrigue

Just what is the Museum of Intrigue? Co-owner Nicole Ginsburg has a simple way of explaining it to those who ask her that very question:

“I’ll ask them ‘Have you ever played an escape room?’ Yes? ‘Okay, it’s not that.’ No? ‘Well, it’s kind of like that.’… It’s like Clue meets Scooby Doo meets the Renaissance festival.”

Join us as we take you on a tour of the most intriguing museum you’ll ever find.

Starting from the Farm

Ginsburg’s multifaceted background, which includes performance, marketing, and stage management, came in handy when a friend approached her with the idea of opening a haunted house. At first, Ginsburg was apprehensive; as she herself admits, “I’m afraid of my own shadow.” However, once the concept was explained to her further, she agreed to help, and Frightmare Farms, a haunt based around the bizarre and macabre findings of one Professor Whitmore, was born.

In 2015, an epiphany came to her. “We had these beautiful sets at the haunted house that people only saw eight days out of the year.” Desiring to open them to the public year-round, and with the escape room craze catching fire around this same time, the solution was obvious. That year, Escape the Estate opened to the public, using Frightmare Farms’ existing setting and plot as a base from which to build the game upon.

Museum of Intrigue

Enter Jono Naito, current co-owner and primary story writer for Museum of Intrigue. Jono played Escape the Estate once, and he was hooked – so much so, in fact, that he simply had to join the team behind it. As Ginsburg relates, “He was like, ‘I want to work here,’ and we were like ‘Well, we’re not hiring.’” But Jono wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and as it turned out, it was for the best. Jono was an escape room aficionado, having played hundreds across the country. Hailing from New York City, he just happened to be in Syracuse, getting his masters degree in fiction writing. His passion for Ginsburg’s work was obvious. “Most people are like, ‘I just want a job; minimum wage is fine, and I’ll work every other Saturday.’ This was different, and I knew it from the beginning.”

It wasn’t long after Jono came on board that he devised a little experiment: using the entire Escape the Estate facility as part of one giant, immersive gaming experience. He invited Ginsburg and her business partners to try out his new concept. Within minutes, Ginsburg was hooked. “We started running all the way around our escape rooms, doing different things, playing the same game, and I was like, ‘Oh. My. God,’ and I wanted to play more, immediately. I couldn’t stop myself; I wanted to do more… this is all I have right now, but if we can figure out how to replicate this, this is going to be big.” And so, from a space in the Destiny, USA mall in Syracuse, the Museum of Intrigue was officially born.

Museum of Intrigue

The Machinations of the Museum

Museum of Intrigue

On its surface, the Museum of Intrigue is exactly that: a multi-exhibit museum showcasing interesting and unusual curiosities. However, when guests decide to participate in one of the Museum’s many Stories, which range from 20 to 60 minutes in length, the facility transforms into an entirely different space, and the Museum reveals its true nature, packed to the brim with hidden puzzles and secrets.

Ginsburg uses the term “Intrigue Experience” to describe the concept. Each Story is its own self-contained Intrigue Experience, with its own unique game elements and goals, all utilizing the same space. One key aspect that differentiates a Story from a typical escape room is that the goal is rarely “to escape”. In one, you may be working to identify a murderer among your own ranks; in another, you might be seeking out a vial full of a deadly virus in order to contain it before it can spread and start a pandemic; and in another, you’re utilizing stealth and trickery in an effort to pilfer a rare and priceless artifact from the Museum itself. Another key aspect is the use of actors: while every Story is largely self-guided, most contain at least one actor to immerse participants in the atmosphere, help keep the story progressing, and provide assistance as needed. They all share one core design philosophy, however: immersion is key. As Ginsburg puts it, “The goal is for you to get that satisfaction out of having the experience, spending time making things work, and working together with your friends.”

One unique aspect of the Museum is how different scenes can be repurposed on the fly to fit the unique narratives of each Story. In a Wild West-themed Story, for example, the Great Hall becomes the mayor’s house, the Salem exhibit transforms into a trading post, and a pirate shipwreck morphs into a saloon. All of this can be accomplished without having to touch a single prop or set piece.

One of Ginsburg’s personal favorite Stories is called “I am the Sheriff Now”. The concept is simple: at the beginning, everyone is split off into teams and handed a huge wad of hundred-dollar bills (all fake, of course). The objective is simple: to be the team with the most money when time expires. To help accomplish this task, each player is given a playing card at the start of the game, with each card indicating certain timed events that can change the course of the game. For example, one card may allow you to rob another player at a certain time, while another card may allow you to assume the role of Sheriff (hence the name), which allows you to change the rules of the game temporarily. However, this is the Wild West, which means that, as long as the law doesn’t expressly forbid it, just about anything goes. Ginsburg relates a rather exciting moment she experienced during her first playing:

Museum of Intrigue

“The first time I was robbed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have no more money left.’ But then I was like, ‘Wait a second: I know how I can get more money.’ There are these satchels that you’re supposed to pay taxes on when you come into each of the exhibits. They never told me I couldn’t steal the money, so I walk up to an actor, and I’m like, ‘Can I?’ and they were like, ‘Listen, darlin’, this is the Wild West. I’m responsible for myself,” and they just walk away, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got a genius idea: I’m gonna go steal all the money!’ However, what I realized was that people had been stealing money for a long time, and there was not a lot of money left in the banks!”

This sense of raw exhilaration is exactly what Ginsburg and co. aim to replicate in each and every experience they create.

The Method Behind the Madness

While inspiration can spring from many sources – from experiences at TransWorld to customer suggestions – overall the design phase for new Stories is highly improvisational. Sometimes the team can spend several long nights trying to devise a solid Story concept, while other times they can nail down the perfect concept in as little as an hour. Overall, it’s about finding an idea that “clicks”, one that allows the Museum to utilize the resources they already have while still creating an experience that’s totally unique from all of the others. From there, they flesh out the details, the characters, and the core game mechanics, tying them all together into a Story that will leave a lasting impression on those who participate.

Another challenge unique to the Museum of Intrigue is the concept of a single, shared game space, atypical to the self-contained nature of most escape room facilities. Surprisingly, little if any external intervention is required to keep every group on its own track without interfering excessively with any other’s. Ginsburg relates the concept to a simple task like grocery shopping: “We’ve all been trained through human operation to be able to function in a space like that… Everyone has their own list and their own goals, and yet each person is still able to function and meet their needs, either by being patient or finding a way to adapt.” This, along with an assembly line-type staffing structure that helps balance reservations with walk-in groups, helps keep every group constantly moving with minimal downtime or interference.

Bringing the Intrigue Experience Outside of the Museum

Museum of Intrigue

In addition to the Stories to be found within the Museum itself, Ginsburg and co. frequently bring the Intrigue Experience to other locations, such as expositions and corporate gatherings. When asked about how they manage to pull off a full-blown Intrigue Experience using much more restricted resources, Ginsburg credits it all to one factor: people. Specifically, Ginsburg stresses giving the people they bring to these events full control over the story that’s being told. If done correctly, it fosters an atmosphere of comfort, safety, and inclusion, which gets participants more engaged and motivated in the experience being presented. As long as those factors can be maintained throughout, the experience can remain just as unforgettable, even in the absence of elaborate sets and costumes.

Parting Advice

To escape room owners looking to add their own unique flair to their businesses, Ginsburg offers up this sage advice:
“Everybody gets up and dresses themselves in the morning. You make choices when you do that. It’s just like when you brand your business, you make choices; ‘These are the colors I’m attracted to, this is this, this is that.’ If I were to walk in as a total stranger and say, ‘You shouldn’t wear that, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that,” how comfortable would you feel? The only person who can run your business and knows how your business should be run is you. It’s your ideas, it’s your comfort, you’re the one who has to run it, so make your business as unique as you are.”

And with that, you can color us totally intrigued.

For more information about the Museum of Intrigue, including location, prices, and the different Stories currently available, visit the Museum of Intrigue website at www.museumofintrigue.com.

The Phantom’s Top Ten Hammer Horrors

Hammer FilmsThe Phantom of the Ville counts down his 10 favorite gothic horror thrillers from Britain’s Hammer Studios!

Hammer Films

As spring brings us April showers and May flowers, we bask in the radiance of the season of rebirth, but for those of us with the orange-and-black gene there are nights when we yearn for the aura of fall. There’s almost nothing I love more about the Halloween season than the atmosphere that chilly fall October nights conjure in the imaginative corners of the mind, and there is no other film studio in cinema history that layers on the Halloween atmosphere quite like Hammer Film Productions of London, England. After the release of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” in 1948, the original masters of gothic horror at Universal Studios in the US retired from producing shadowy, fog-filled monster movies to focus more on radioactive giant insects, flying saucers and the Atomic Age.

Ten years passed until Hammer Studios got the idea of reviving the classic Universal monsters in lurid Technicolor. By the late 1950’s, audiences were harder to shock and Hammer was able to take advantage of the less strict censorship standards to deliver the goods that Universal never could: bright, oozing Technicolor blood and a new sexual suggestiveness that would have made theatrical audiences of the 1930’s and 1940’s blush.

Hammer returned the days of gothic horror to the silver screen with the one-two punch of “The Curse of Frankenstein” in 1957 and “The Horror of Dracula” in 1958, making global box-office horror stars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and creating a devoted new cult of horror film fanatics. While the earlier Hammer efforts of the late 50’s and early 60’s were fairly lush and classy productions featuring classically trained actors and lavish sets, the later productions of the 1970’s were forced to compete for marquee space and drive-in screens with much cheaper and trashier American horror films. Thus, the films got wilder, schlockier and sexier, resulting in films like “Vampire Circus” (1971), “Dracula AD, 1972” and the Hammer/Shaw Brothers kung fu/vampire hybrid, “Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” (1974).

Many Hammer fans who get first exposure to the classier, handsomely produced earlier films eventually become equally enamored of the more desperate, anything goes attitude of the later releases. Today, I am going to offer up my Top Ten Hammer Horrors from across the 20 years and 50 plus horror films of the studio’s heyday.

10) Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974): One of the later, wild and woolly Hammer horror hybrids, “Captain Kronos” mixes the traditional vampire genre with the swashbuckler genre to joyous effect. German actor Horst Janson plays a Nordic, Errol Flynn styled swordsman with an unknown past who travels across the countryside with a hunchbacked sidekick seeking out and destroying vampires wherever he finds them. He beds sexy Caroline Munro, stakes vampires and ultimately has a climactic sword duel with an aristocratic vampire. Great fun!

9) Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Great actor and historically infamous boozer-and-brawler Oliver Reed plays a young man cursed with lycanthropy in Hammer’s one and only werewolf production. It’s a slow burn, period set thriller that might test the patience of modern audiences as make up artist Roy Ashton’s incredibly effective and scary werewolf design doesn’t make a screen appearance until late in the film’s runtime. It’s still worth watching for Reed’s unchained savagery as the werewolf.

8) Twins of Evil (1971): The third and final film in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy based on characters from Sheridan La Fenu’s vampire novella, “Carmilla,” this sexy, female-focused vampire movie follows “The Vampire Lovers” (1970) and “Lust for a Vampire” (1971). The movie stars Playboy Playmate twins, Mary and Madeleine Collison, as two identical, buxom twins sent to live with their puritanical uncle, Peter Cushing, who are seduced by a coven of local vampires. One is innocent and the other diabolical, but which one is which? Lesbian overtones, graphic beheadings and other extreme violence pepper this horny vampire epic.

7) Quatermass and the Pit (1967): One of Hammer’s finest experiments in science fiction and cosmic horror, Hammer acting stalwart Andrew Kier delivers my favorite portrayal of Professor Bernard Quatermass who is called in to study an ancient, perhaps alien artifact found in London. This film is a sequel to “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955) and “Quatermass 2” (1957). A creeping sense of doom pervades this entire film leading to an appropriately apocalyptic climax.

6) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Perhaps my personal favorite Sherlock Holmes adaption, Peter Cushing plays the great detective and Andre Morell plays Dr. Watson while Christopher Lee also stars in the smaller role of Sir Henry Baskerville. Hammer’s technicolor Holmes epic, magnificently staged by director Terence Fisher, focuses on the spookier aspects of Author Conan Doyle’s novel: foggy moors, gaslit back alleys and demon hounds. This is definitely the Holmes film for horror fans.

5) The Devil Rides Out (1968): Hammer’s finest film about the occult and demonology, Christopher Lee is provided the rare opportunity to play the hero this time, occult scholar and expert Duc de Richleau, who agrees to help an old friend save another deceased friend’s son from the clutches of a satanic cult. The frightening midsection of the film finds Lee trying to protect the group in a circular pentagram on the floor from the forces of evil who wish to break the circle and attack them. It’s not difficult to imagine Lee’s character as sort of a precursor to Benedict Cumberbatch’sDr. Strange.” The film’s villain, the charismatically evil Mocata, is played by the great Charles Grey.

4) The Mummy (1959): This revenge-from-the-tomb epic handedly beats Universal’s five Mummy movies, including the original 1932 Boris Karloff classic, as the best mummy movie in cinema history. Beware the beat of the cloth wrapped feet! Peter Cushing plays the hero and Christopher Lee dons the bandages in a completely nonspeaking but physically intimidating role as Kharis. German born composer Franz Reizenstein delivers a rousing orchestral score and the production values are at Hammer’s highest level. This was followed by “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” (1964), “The Mummy’s Shroud” (1967) and “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” (1971).

3) The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958): A direct sequel to Hammer’s first gothic horror film, “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), this is my personal favorite Frankenstein movie in the long running series which would go on to include “The Evil of Frankenstein” (1964), “Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967), “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1969), “The Horror of Frankenstein” (1970)” and “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” (1973). Peter Cushing is certainly the screen’s definitive Baron Frankenstein and this film delivers all the lavish laboratory sets and grotesque gore and body parts one could ask for.

Hammer Films

2) Brides of Dracula (1960): The first sequel to “Horror of Dracula” and the only Hammer Dracula film NOT to feature the Count himself, but don’t let that dissuade you. On any given day, I could easily change my mind and declare this the greatest Hammer horror production and I struggled with my decision of how to rank these top two classics today. Thrill to the continuing adventures of Peter Cushing’s Doctor Van Helsing after his defeat of Count Dracula in the previous film. Van Helsing must confront a new vampire threat at a Transylvanian girl’s school. David Peel plays the younger, seductive aristocratic vampire, Baron Meinster, who is freed early in the film to roam the night creating more of his kind. You just haven’t seen everything until you’ve seen Peter Cushing cure himself of vampirism with a splash of holy water and a hot poker!

1) The Horror of Dracula (1958) Hammer’s true masterpiece, this loose adaption of Bram Stoker’s novel was the roadmap and gold standard for all of Hammer’s vampire films, and arguably all vampire cinema to follow. Christopher Lee’s magnetic and terrifying portrayal of Dracula looms over the entire film even though he only has about 15 minutes of actual screen time. James Bernard’s thundering score captures the essence of the Hammer gothic aesthetic. The climactic confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is a pulse pounding master class in action staging and editing. One of the best gothic horror films ever made. Hammer nails it.

Honorable mentions: “Plague of the Zombies” (1966), “The Gorgon” (1964), “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1968), “Kiss of the Vampire” (1963).

The Phantom of The Ville