The roots of the most successful British independent production company can be traced back to 1913 when Spanish ex-patriot would-be business tycoon Enrique Carreras and his brother Alphonse made their first tentative move into the entertainment industry. They bought a theatre in Hammersmith, London, that would eventually become the first of the Blue Hall chain of variety halls. They also had their first dabble in the movie industry with a sell-out screening of the biblical epic Quo Vadis? at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by members of the royal family.
By 1923, the success of the Blue Hall theatres allowed the brothers to buy their first cinema, the Harrow Coliseum, which he used to screen cheaply bought B-movies and reissues. With an expanding chain of movie houses, Enrique CarreraS formed his own distribution company, Exclusive Films.
While Carerras continued his expansion, the second key player in the early years of Hammer entered the scene. William Hinds was another London based entrepreneur who had already established a chain of bicycle shops, hairdressers and jewellers and a theatrical booking agency. The latter reflected Hinds' first love and he even went so far as to taking to stage as part of a variety hall double act, Hammer and Smith.
In November 1934, with his stage career firmly behind him, Hinds decided to move into the film industry and created a company that he named after his old stage name - Hammer Productions. When he met Carreras shortly afterwards, Hinds realised that he had found a kindred spirit and the two men decided to merge their talents under the Exclusive banner.
While Hinds worked alongside Carreras in distribution, the production chores at the fledgling Hammer was handed over to Henry Fraser Passmore who turned out the company's first batch of films between 1935 and 1937. As a precursor of things to come, one of those films was the horror-tinged melodrama The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1936) with Bela Lugosi.
But Hammer's success was to be short-lived. The British film industry suddenly went into decline and the spectre of war was looming. Hinds decided to put the company into liquidation and spent the war years concentrating with Carreras on distributing films through Exclusive Films.
With cessation of hostilities in 1945 it was time for Carreras and Hinds to take stock of their situation. In 1946, they recruited both Carreras' son James and Hinds' son Anthony who had actually worked very briefly with the company in 1939 before going off to enlist as a pilot in the RAF. Anthony was keen for the company to get back into production and spent much of his time monitoring the output of the British studios that Exclusive got their product from.
Exclusive were largely reliant on the time on 'quota quickes' and Jack Goodlatte, the bookings manager of the ABC cinema chain encouraged the board of Exclusive (which now also included Carreras' son Michael) to get in on the 'quota quickie' action. They dipped their toes in the waters with a string of rarely-seen documentaries and crime shorts before resurrecting Hammer Films Ltd in 1947 as a subsidiary of Exclusive and quickly registering it as an entirely separate company in February 1949.
Hammer's first real success was another precursor of things to come - a series of films adapted from the hugely popular BBC radio show Dick Barton - Special Agent. A decade later, their remakes of the BBC television shows The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II would pave the way for their subsequent careers in screen horror.
A series of steady successes saw the company through their first few years as they turned out B-dramas and documentaries, mainly for Exclusive's own chain of cinemas. They ratcheted up their business in 1951 when they entered into a co-production deal with American producer Robert Lippert, offering them a much-needed foot in the door of US distribution. In 1954 they released their first colour feature, the swashbuckling adventure The Men of Sherwood Forest.
In the summer of 1953, Anthony Hinds, like so many British television viewers, had been enthralled by the BBC's The Quatermass Experiment, a six part science fiction thriller written by Nigel Kneale. Hinds had been so impressed by what he saw that he suggested that Hammer should buy the big screen rights. James Carreras agreed with him and together, they approached the BBC and snapped up the rights.
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) was a massive success and the company quickly followed up with similar horror-flavoured science fiction thrillers X the Unknown (1956), The Abominable Snowman (1957) and the second Quatermass story Quatermass 2 (1957, quickly abandoning the slate of historical adventures they had already lined up.
It was clear to all involved that although the science fiction films had done well, the company couldn't keep on recycling the same basic plots and started looking for something new. Once again, John Goodlatte came to the rescue when he suggested that they remake Frankenstein. It was the beginning of a new era in British film production - The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was even bigger than the Quatermass films and marked the start of a two decade period that saw the company become synonymous with screen horror.
Dracula followed in 1958 (reuniting actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who were to be transformed into stars by their association with the company) and a whole slew of sequels continued through to the mid-1970s. Success attracts even more success and as each successive film proved popular with the public, so Hammer came to the attention of the big American distributors. Both Universal and Columbia would court the company, injecting cash into the hard-working Hammer machine and ensuring a seemingly never-ending supply of quality product throughout the 1960s. Inevitably, with the big guns now handling their product, there was less need for Exclusive which was quietly wound up in 1968 after several years of gradually being wound down.
Throughout the decade, Hammer expanded its range of product - although the Technicolor gothics are what the company is primarily best known for, the 60s found them dabbling in adventure films (She (1965), The Vengeance of She (1968)), psychological thrillers (Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), Fanatic (1965)), crime movies (Hell Is a City (1960), Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), Cash on Demand (1961)), swashbucklers (The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Scarlet Blade (1963), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)), science fiction (The Damned (1963), Moon Zero Two (1969)), bloody historical epics (The Stranglers of Bombay (1960), The Terror of the Tongs (1961), The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Brigand of Kandahar (1965)) and prehistoric romps (One Million Years B.C. (1966), Prehistoric Women (1967)). There was even the first of the company's forays into television with Journey to the Unknown (1968).
Hammer was at its peak in 1968 when it won the Queen's Award for Industry in recognition of its astonishing success in the middle of the decade. But there were tough times looming, not only for Hammer but for the whole British film industry which was about to enter one of its periodic slumps.
As the 1970s dawned, Hammer was starting to find it hard to impress a public who was gradually tiring of its patented gothic horrors. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) had changed the way that screen horror was done and the arrival of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1973 and The Exorcist a year later presented Hammer with a challenge that they didn't seem well suited to meeting.
Through the early 70s they continued to make horror films and experimented a little with the house style - sex had always played an important part in any Hammer horror but the early 70s saw the company upping the ante with its series of female vampire films (Countess Dracula (1970), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971)). There were some strange - and not always successful - oddities (Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Vampire Circus (1972), Demons of the Mind (1972), Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter Kronos (1973) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)) and a couple of bona fide classics (Hands of the Ripper (1971) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)) but these were generally lean years for the company - indeed their biggest successes at the time were a trio of films based on a popular TV sitcom, On the Buses (1971), Mutiny On the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973).
Unable to both attract financing (American producers had abandoned the British film industry at the start of the decade) or t find a way to respond to the changes in the horror movie industry, Hammer finally called it a day after their third Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil a Daughter (1976) - which tried desperately to ring the changes but it was far too little far too late - and an ill-advised remake of The Lady Vanishes (1979).
By the end of the 1970s the Hammer name no longer carried much weight in horror circles - the torch had been passed back to the Americans after films like Dawn of the Dead (1978), halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) tapped audiences that Hammer didn't even seem to realised existed.
The 80s found Hammer adrift in the wilderness with only a couple of TV series, the enjoyable Hammer House of Horror (1980) and the hopeless Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984), to keep the name alive. But even this was better than the 90s, during which the company was passed from one set of owners to another. Every year, it seemed, there came an announcement that Hammer was about to return but nothing ever happened - much of this was due in so small part to the fact that many of the people involved in running the company throughout the decade were displaying the same lack of understanding of what modern horror audience wanted as the Hinds and Carreras clans had in the early 70s. In 2001, the company was bought again and - again - there was the inevitable promise that Hammer would be back. Time will tell if anything will come of this particular venture, though perhaps you shouldn't hold your breath.
Whatever the future may hold for Hammer, its place in
horror history is assured. In a two decade period it created some
of the best loved movies in the genre, helped to foster Cushing and
Lee as horror icons and breathed new life back into a genre that was
all but played out before they revamped it. Not everything they did
worked by any means but when they were of form there was no-one who
could touch them. And indeed as subsequent attempts at gothic horror
have shown (Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
(1994) both spring horribly to mind), no-one can touch them even now.
1968 - 1969
Greasepaint and Gore Part 2: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton
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