Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is the first important recognisably British horror film. However, to view Dead of Night as marking the ‘birth’ of British horror cinema is rather problematic, for in many respects Ealing’s film is very different from the long stream of horror films that eventually followed from the mid-1950s onwards. This 1950s wave of horror was in large part initiated by the enormous commercial success of Hammer’s SF/horror The Quatermass Experiment in 1955. In seeking to explain the transition from Dead of Night to The Quatermass Experiment, as well as the virtual absence of horror from British cinema in the intervening years, the chapter considers both the broadly social and the specifically cinematic context of each film’s production. Such an approach reveals the way in which the identity of British horror cinema was subject to constant and substantial revision during this period.
The period 1956–64 can be seen as the classic phase in British horror production, years during which a particular national horror movement emerged. The most famous (or infamous), influential and commercially successful sector of British horror at this time was that produced by the Hammer company, and this chapter will be devoted in the main to a discussion of Hammer horror. The 1956–64 period is ‘bookended’ by two important Hammer films, The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer’s first colour horror, 1957) and The Gorgon (1964): these were, respectively, the first and last of the five Hammer films on which horror stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and principal Hammer director Terence Fisher collaborated. This fact alone marks the 1956–64 period as a distinctive stage in Hammer’s development. However, any discussion of British horror production in this period should not lose sight of the fact that while Hammer was certainly dominant, approximately two-thirds of horror did not fall under Hammer’s auspices. In addition to discussing Hammer, then, the chapter also shows that while films made by Hammer’s competitors were often working with the same issues as those addressed by Hammer, on the whole (and with a few distinguished exceptions) they lack the richness and energy of Hammer’s more successful approach.
By the mid-1960s the British horror film, largely because of Hammer’s unprecedented success, had become firmly associated in the public’s mind with period settings. What one finds between 1964 (the year of The Gorgon) and 1966 is a cluster of films which seek, presumably in the commercial interests of product differentiation, to relocate horror to a recognisable present-day world while at the same time appealing to the already established market for that period horror. This chapter considers a number of case studies – including Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), Witchfinder General (1968) and others – and explores the extent to which their makers succeeded in the attempt to rework and modernise British horror. David Pirie identifies this period as decisive in the history of the genre, with an influx of young, new talent which transformed and regenerated British horror. The chapter offers a different reading, arguing that, while new talent was to be found in the genre (namely Michael Reeves), older hands such as Terence Fisher were still producing significant work. The chapter contends that the films of this time, rather than simply moving on from the outmoded and inflexible certainties of previous horror productions, project a decidedly ambivalent relationship to earlier horrors.
In this short afterword, Russ Hunter, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Northumbria, offers some reflections on Peter Hutchings’ career. He notes Hutchings’ incisive intelligence and scholarly rigour, but also his kindness and generosity. Besides making major academic contributions in the form of Hammer and Beyond and his Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema, he was also an excellent mentor to aspiring scholars. Above all else, he was driven by a love for cinema, a love that defined the course of his life.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Hammer’s The Night Creatures
In 1957 Hammer commissioned American author Richard Matheson to write a screenplay based on his vampire novella, I Am Legend. The screenplay (retitling the story as The Night Creatures), however, went unmade. This chapter examines the project in relation to the following questions. Why was Hammer interested in the I Am Legend project in the first place? Why did it go to the trouble of bringing Matheson over from the United States? What does this suggest about the pattern of production in the company during the late 1950s and, more broadly, about the relation between British and American models of horror and indeed between horror literature and horror cinema? Such questions direct us to I Am Legend as a commercial property as well as an innovative horror text, and a consideration of the circumstances of its acquisition and development by Hammer can enhance our understanding of the relation between these two distinct aspects of its existence.
Of all the British ﬁlm companies that sought to emulate Hammer’s success in the horror genre throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Amicus was one of the most proliﬁc and distinctive. Between 1964 and 1974 it produced fourteen horror ﬁlms; these included both portmanteau/anthology films and single-plot dramas. The predominantly British casts and settings of Amicus horrors, the presence in many of them of the British horror stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and the fact that they were all directed by British directors working with British crews in British studios suggest that Amicus should be seen as an integral part of the British horror movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite this, Amicus horror ﬁlms have not played any signiﬁcant role in the critical re-evaluation of British horror that was inaugurated by David Pirie’s groundbreaking book A Heritage of Horror in 1973. In particular, the Amicus ﬁlms do not sit easily with those critical accounts that have sought to identify British horror as a purely indigenous cultural phenomenon. This chapter is therefore interested instead in the precise nature of the company’s dependence on American-sourced material and the extent to which this material is reworked within a British context of production. Such an approach can potentially highlight aspects of British horror that are obscured by those accounts which have centred on Hammer.
The conclusion briefly reflects on subsequent developments in British horror following Hammer’s ‘demise’ in the late 1970s. Brief consideration is given to such films as The Wicker Man (1973) and Hellraiser (1987) and Hammer’s newfound ‘respectability’.
Horror is often a problem for critics. The all too visible stress in many horror films on morbid themes and acts of violence; the openly exploitative nature of much horror; the association of the genre with a predominantly adolescent audience: all these factors militate against the horror genre being viewed in anything but the most derogatory or patronising of terms. So much is this the case that even those critics who want to argue for the worth of these films sometimes find themselves negotiating what appears to be inhospitable terrain, with their work taking on an accordingly defensive tone. This unease is evident in the various critical responses provoked by British horror cinema over the years. From the outraged to the laudatory, these responses are part of the baggage which British horror inevitably brings with it to any critical discussion. If we are to move beyond some of the less helpful long-standing assumptions about horror and towards a more systematic understanding of this sector of British film production, we need to consider this legacy of criticism. The chapter explores the various responses to and readings of British horror since the 1950s and concludes by attempting to identify what it is that makes the horror film so distinctive and important a part of British cinema.
Frankenstein (or the monster that often goes under his name) and Dracula are without doubt the two ‘stars’ of the horror genre as well as being the most influential and widely known products of literary gothic. This raises the question of how Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula cycles relate to the earlier novels and films which originated and developed these figures. To put it another way, how can one conceive of Frankenstein’s and Dracula’s historical passage from their nineteenth-century literary origins to their entrance into British cinema in the 1950s? This chapter considers the ways in which Hammer established its own versions of the Baron and the Count, how it differentiated them from earlier versions, and how these figures were developed throughout the cycles in which they featured. As far as the latter is concerned, one often finds – particularly in the Frankenstein cycle – that there is rather more innovation and rethinking than one might have supposed.
The introductory chapter is written to help position the reader regarding the academic climate that saw the first edition of Hammer and Beyond materialise, to consider some of the book’s omissions, and to assess the state of British horror in the years immediately leading up to, and following, its publication.