Studying Hammer Horror by Victoria Grace Walden

At first glance, Studying Hammer Horror is a tiny little book.  It’s a little larger than a mass market paperback, and looks to be as thick as a thick magazine.  Let this be a lesson in deceptive appearances.

This is 141 pages of PhD level assessment of the foundations of Britain’s cult film industry.  That’s actually one of the central arguments Dr. Walden makes, that Hammer horror is the basis from where all other British cult films rose.  It’s not only a compelling argument, it seems fairly obvious the way it’s presented here.  According to her, the secret weapon that made it happen was quite literally an X factor.  The X rating in the mid to late 1950s meant that Hammer’s films were never going to find an audience on British television due to postwar attitudes.  But a new demographic rose, one with the most disposable income and a desire to actually leave the house: the teenager.  And since the average teenager was young enough to have vague memories of the war or none at all, the anxieties of the British people were not shared by their demographic.  What’s more, these were new takes on the classic monsters, decidedly British, and — most importantly — in color!  Essentially, these were the right films at the right time targeted at the right audience.

The book covers the history of Hammer as a production studio and distinguishes what made it unique, how its own drawbacks gave it the very edge it needed to succeed, and then how playing to that success is precisely what buried it a mere twenty years later.  Hammer horror is analyzed as a genre in itself, compared and contrasted to the whole of British cinema.  Terence Fisher is singled out and looked at critically as an auteur director who pretty much shaped everything we’ve come to understand about those films.  Analysis tracks the rise of the studio through its early QuartermassFrankenstein, and Dracula films, and into the early 70s where the films took full advantage of the X certificate they’d already exploited to push the boundaries of sex without quite crossing the line into smut.  Opinions will vary, of course, but the general view presented here and in most documentaries I’ve gone through is that they still maintained some integrity and artistic vision.  That could be the ever-reliable “British restraint” coming to bear.  The author’s personal view is that the cookie cutter presentation that built Hammer’s success is precisely what tore it down.  There is comfort in knowing what to expect, and sometimes knowing what’s coming is part of what ramps up the suspense factor.  But audience expectations change, and Hammer didn’t change enough to keep up.

The book also covers the continuing influence these films had after the studio had closed, as well as the return of the studio in the modern era with films such as Let the Right One In and The Woman in Black.

As an American, I’m always watching these films from the outside looking in.  I’ve spent a lifetime doing so.  I’ve always known these films were the central hub of the “English Gothic” cinema, and that they’ve had an international flavor that went beyond their British borders.  But knowing that and knowing why it worked are two different things.  A book like this helps me to better compare these films with Universal’s offerings a generation before, to see how the torch was passed, what changed, what stayed the same, and how things were reinvented from the ground up.  Essentially this book offers the British perspective so necessary to fully appreciate Hammer films and puts things into context.  It doesn’t seem like much even while reading the book, but it makes a world of difference.  The text comes across every bit as scholarly as the title and credentials of the author would suggest, which makes it a bit dry, but it’s not a slog to read either.  Far from it.  For the serious film student or horror film enthusiast, this little book makes a big footprint.

4 stars

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