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

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