In the decades following the Second World War, Hammer Studios produced a number of films in the horror genre. These decades were considered the ‘Golden Age’ of British Cinema (1945-1975) and filmmakers were trying to experiment and explore the medium of cinema. The period witnessed “the evolution of a radical and subversive cinema focused upon challenging the moral codes and conservative values of the British establishment.” Hammer Studios emerged as an influential player in British cinema during the 1950s. It marked a “direct reaction to postwar optimism and the subsequent rise of a conservative political system. It also represented alternative artistic strategies operating in opposition to the realist tendencies of classical British cinema.” (Wilson, 2007) It was in this milieu that Hammer Studios’ foray into horror films will have to be analyzed. The rest of this essay will identify Hammer Studios’ contribution to the Gothic tradition in British cinema by way of citing its popular productions.
The horror genre is fairly controversial because of the amount of gore and violence that it entails. To this extent, the productions of Hammer Studios were relegated to cult status within a section of mainstream media. But as noted journalist Peter Hutchings points out “these films do draw upon, represent and are always locatable in relation to much broader shifts and tendencies in British social history.” (Wilson, 2007) Indeed, Hammer Studios singlehandedly revitalized the Gothic tradition within British cinema. Although the studio continued to operate within a number of different generic models,
“its emphasis upon the redefinition of the horror genre represented a revival of the Gothic British cultural tradition…the return of this tradition to postwar Britain aptly reflected Cold War anxieties and a repressed desire to subvert the moral patterns of the dominant establishment. It also foreshadowed future oppositional movements championing alternative ideologies as exemplified by radical directions in theatre by “The Angry Young Men” and culminating in punk rock.” (Wilson, 2007)
There is a political dimension behind Hammer’s revival of the Gothic tradition. This is so because by creating new undercurrents to the formation of national cultural identity, Hammer enabled ideological opposition to the status quo. During the 1950s, when Hammer Studios became a prominent production house, the cultural and political values were fairly orthodox. The studio’s genius is in being able to use traditional “generic cinematic structures as a method through which to reflect and subvert a conservative value system.” (Wilson, 2007) Following the release of The Quatermass Xperiment,
“Hammer attempted to capitalize upon the freedom that the X-rating allowed through the production of such sci-fi films as X–The Unknown (1956). Despite its status as a minor work within the Hammer oeuvre, the film remains significant in that “it firmly established Hammer’s transition from B-movie thrillers to out-and-out horror/science fiction.” (Wilson, 2007)
There are definitive features of Hammer productions that have come to be identified with the studio. The films are invariably of high technical quality. They almost always contain blood and violence and expose a perennial battle between good and evil. In these respects the Hammer films remain classics. But there are critics and high-brow commentators who would counter that the films are “nothing more than that laughable movie you might find as you channel surf the telly after coming home from the pub on a Friday night.” (“Classic Face of Horror,” 2007, p. 19) One can understand this sort of antagonism against the horror genre. After all, the basic commercial motive behind the genre is to thrill and titillate the audience at the cost of addressing serious social issues. Though there is entertainment value to horror films, they are essentially socially and politically irrelevant. For example, just as “the cult Carry On films curried favour with the masses as much as they were loathed by elitist critics, Hammer was loved by the public and pooh-poohed by some who wanted them banned.” (“Classic Face of Horror,” 2007, p. 19) So, the criticism directed against Hammer Studios for promoting a trivial and superficial conception of humanity is true to a degree.
The lead characters in Hammer horror films confounded questions of right and wrong, good and evil, and love and hate. And it is for the studio’s open, moral exploration that it has endured in public memory. With such fundamental questions being raised through its films, it is not surprising that the audience feel they have travelled to hell and back. A Hammer film was
“made with the winning ingredients of quality actors and cleverly designed sets. Make-up was impressive and the films had an air of polish that belied their modest budgets…the Hammer House of Horror television series in the 1970s and 1980s was a welcome spooky spectacle on a Saturday night.” (“Classic Face of Horror,” 2007, p. 19)
Finally, that Hammer Studios was integral for the revival of Gothic cinema in Britain is evidenced from the legacy it has left behind. These days, remakes of old horror classics are on the rise again. Any subject from Agatha Christie murder mystery to the Famous Five is sought for inspiration and game for remake. In this context, it is a testimony to the high station of Hammer within the Gothic tradition that the back catalogue of Hammer Studios are being plundered for remakes.
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