The horror, the horror

“I was flying to New York,” recalls Simon Oakes, “and I picked up this magazine.” Something caught his eye. “It referred to a football game being like a Hammer House of Horror.” Oakes, a senior executive in cable TV, had been dreaming about setting up a properly funded British film company. And on his flight home from New York he was knocked sideways by a sentence in another magazine, the American fashion bible W. This described Kate Moss as having “hair like a Hammer heroine”. “It was amazing,” Oakes says. “This iconic film company, that for 30 years hadn’t made a movie, had entered the vernacular. It was deeply embedded in the culture. It was a brand that wouldn’t die.”

Hammer’s lurid combination of death and sex – lashings of blood and gore, bare-breasted women suffering violent ends, and the best scary monsters – granted it a special stake in British hearts. But its clammy reach went far beyond these shores. Martin Scorsese, no less, said: “If we saw the logo of Hammer films we knew it would be a very special picture.” But this is a bit too generous, because, as we shall see, not everything Hammer produced was any good.

Oakes is talking at his office overlooking London’s Haymarket. At times he gives the impression, not uncommon among film types, that he needs to be somewhere else. But he stops and grins hungrily. “The brand that wouldn’t die,” he says again. “If you use that as a headline I’ll take you for dinner in any restaurant you like.”

He started out in TV in the 1980s, working on cultish shows such as The Comic Strip and Max Headroom, then joining the pioneering cable TV company Liberty Global, reaching the highest levels and staying for 11 years. But after reading those magazines on his New York trip he decided to quit, persuading a financial whiz who worked with him, Marc Schipper, to quit too. And in May 2007 they persuaded the big Dutch investors behind Big Brother, Cyrte, to put money into Hammer.

Now the truth is, we’ve heard before that Hammer was making a comeback. In 2000, the studio was bought by a consortium that included Charles Saatchi, but they never made any films. Oakes wouldn’t be satisfied mining Hammer’s back catalogue – putting out DVDs and selling the right to do remakes. With Cyrte’s backing, he wanted to “actually invest in our own movies”.

He brought in a pair of successful producers, Guy East and Nigel Sinclair, who have an office in LA (East had also once worked as distributor of Hammer films, so he knew the studio’s back catalogue). Between them, they raised £100m, then started to make films. The first, The Resident, impressively stars the two-times-Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank. It was shot in New York and New Mexico this summer. Described as “an erotic and sexy thriller in the same vein as Fatal Attraction and Disturbia”, it’s about a single woman moving into an apartment and not bothering to change the locks…

For Hammer fans, this news could hardly be more exciting. Hammer’s last production, the TV series Hammer House of Horror, went out in the 1980s. Since then, there’s been little for fans to enjoy except horror conventions and events such as the forthcoming 13th annual reunion of the Ingrid Pitt fan club. (For a £25 membership fee, and tickets at £50 each, you too could join the star of Hammer’s seminal The Vampire Lovers at the Polish Centre in Hammersmith, west London, for wine, food and dancing.) Now that’s starting to change. Suddenly, the kind of horror that Hammer made its own is back in fashion, with monsters, aliens and vampires popping up on television, online and at film festivals. To coincide with Hallowe’en, there’s a Hammer festival in London’s East End, with ghost tours, a vampire hunt and a “dress to kill” ball. And last month saw the publication of a new book, Hammer Glamour, revealing more than you can possibly need to know about the women who screamed and gibbered through the old films with varying degrees of aplomb.

Sinclair acknowledges that Oakes saw the moment coming: “He was completely inspiring. He persuaded us that there was a legacy and tradition that was incredibly valuable.” But the big question is this: how are Hammer’s new owners to make use of that heritage without either (a) veering away from it and jettisoning all the expensive goodwill they’ve bought into, or (b) being derided for sticking too closely to the old Hammer that had, let’s not forget, ceased making films because it failed to keep up with the times?

Hammer started making films in the 1930s, but only became known as the “house of horror” after the success of The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 led to many more in that genre. The Curse of Frankenstein followed in 1957, and Dracula in 1958. But Hammer didn’t abandon other genres – one of the most successful British films of 1971 was its comedy On the Buses.

The company’s historian, Marcus Hearn, says nobody knows exactly how many films the studio made. Hearn reckons it is well over 200, of which about 70 were some kind of horror, but some pre-war films may have got lost. “Hammer is by far the most successful British film company of all time. Even Working Title has got a long way to catch up, and they’re owned by Universal.”

Of course, success is not just about the number of films made. Hammer also earned more, internationally, than the Carry On films. Another measure of success is influence: The League of Gentlemen, The Two Ronnies, Kate Bush and the Carry On films all produced works in tribute to Hammer’s horror, while the directors who have acknowledged some influence include George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Dante, John Landis and John Carpenter. One on whom Hammer’s influence is impossible to miss is Tim Burton: it’s been said that anybody could make a Burton film if they hired a Hammer director to film a book by Dr Seuss.

Burton’s acknowledgment of Hammer’s influence is more nuanced than Scorsese’s: Burton says he didn’t love any particular Hammer movie but a general idea of Hammer. “Those films weren’t necessarily technically superior – for instance, you could really tell when they were on a stage and when they were on location – but people love them anyway.” Hearn believes that for Americans growing up in Hammer’s heyday, the studio’s great appeal was its sincerity. “Hammer took itself seriously. They didn’t do anything tongue-in-cheek. You couldn’t find fault with the production qualities or the talent. The acting in particular was top-notch.”

This is true: setting aside the Hammer nerds, not a lot of people know that Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and another early stalwart, Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who), all appeared in Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet. All the same, Hearn contends that Hammer’s success was not altogether deliberate: “They just stumbled into it. They were the first to film horror in colour, and the first to use sex. The difference between Universal’s Dracula in the 1930s, with Bela Lugosi, and Hammer’s Dracula was enormous: Hammer made Dracula a sexual predator and cast a handsome young man, Christopher Lee. Hammer was in the vanguard of the permissive society, but only because they were trying to push people into cinemas at a time when TV was offering serious competition.”

But by the 1970s Hammer started to lose as much as it gained from the permissive culture. The studio began hiring models, sometimes straight from the pages of Playboy, with little or no acting experience, not a few of whom suffered the indignity of having their voices overdubbed.

One who had acted only a little previously was Madeline Smith. She recalls the exploitation: “My nightie had to be pulled down to my waist and I had to run around with no top. I wasn’t ecstatic about this, but one of the producers told us those scenes were for the Japanese version and wouldn’t be seen over here.” She later realised there was no Japanese version.

Desperate to keep up with the times, Hammer produced some clunkers. One low point for Christopher Lee was Dracula AD 1972. “He struggled to preserve his diligent interpretation of the role amid Hammer’s garish vision of early 1970s youth culture,” as Hearn puts it. “Patently phoney”, said one critic. Before shooting his next Dracula film, Lee told an interviewer: “I’m doing the next one under protest. I think it’s fatuous.”

Bearing in mind how unhappy Lee had become, it’s a credit to Oakes and the new gang that Lee – best known these days as the chief baddie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – agreed to appear in The Resident. Would Lee have taken the part just because a company he’d worked for a long time ago had been taken over by new people? Perhaps. The official version, however, is that he did it because he liked the script.

On set, Lee remembered the old Hammer fondly, despite everything. “It really was like a family, always the same people in a tiny studio by the Thames.” Working on the new film felt strange, he said: “It’s almost like starting all over again. The difference is that I’m in a different country, with a different crew and director.”

That might not sound exactly like a good thing. But Oakes has a bright, upbeat analogy (about branding again) to describe the differences Lee has identified: “Look at the Mini. It’s got a German owner but it still has the character it used to have – the same DNA – but now it’s faster and it has electric windows!”

The electric windows, in this case, include an Oscar-winning cinematographer, an Oscar-winning costumer designer and a double-Oscar-winning star. “Hilary Swank is one of the best actresses in the world,” says Sinclair, “and she’s the first Hammer heroine of the new era.” In an industry where film-makers typically stumble from one project to another, it’s hard not to be impressed by the strategy devised by Oakes and his partners. They prepared for the 2010 release of The Resident, for instance, by putting out an “interactive web serial”, Beyond the Rave, through MySpace in 2008. The traffic was “excellent”, Oakes claims. “There’s an audience of 16- to 25-year-olds who have never heard of Hammer. Social-networking sites are a place to show them what Hammer was in the past and what it could be in the future.”

They used a similarly forensic approach when planning which films to release next, and in what order. “We set about thinking about the themes that are in the Hammer oeuvre,” Oakes explains. “There’s a whole series of genres within the genre: aliens with Quatermass, walking dead with The Mummy, vampire lore, Dracula and Frankenstein, women in peril, psychological thrillers…” The Resident is the kind of noir that Hammer did in the late 1950s and early ’60s – films like The Nanny, with Bette Davis, Hitchcockian, psychological thrillers.

“The next film, Let Me In, is a remake of a cultish Swedish vampire movie. Filming starts in the next few weeks under the direction of Matt Reeves, who made last year’s hugely successful monsters-in-Manhattan movie Cloverfield. After that, there’s The Woman in Black, based on a novella by Susan Hill, with a script by Jane Goldman (Jonathan Ross’s wife), who co-wrote the screenplay for the 2007 fantasy Stardust. “Then we have a film called The Quiet Ones,” says Oakes, “a true story about scientists in Cambridge who, instead of doing what they should be doing and working on DNA, decide on creating a poltergeist.”

With all this variety, what will make audiences feel the film they have seen is a “Hammer” film? Hammer films were generally “about the British condition” says Hearn. Even set in Transylvania, they rarely made concessions to the international market by hiring American actors. “Even for the kung fu films they just sent Peter Cushing to Hong Kong.”

By that standard, The Resident fails. But Sinclair takes a different view. “If the films have the Hammer vibe, people will accept any accent. Americans don’t think of James Bond as British.”

Oakes, for his part, hems and haws about house style, whether the thing that makes a film “Hammer” or not is the story and the characterisation. He lists the kinds of film Hammer would have been proud to make – The Orphanage, Psycho, The Omen, The Exorcist, Sleepy Hollow – and others, admirable in certain respects, that it wouldn’t – Saw, The Evil Dead. “Hammer shouldn’t make what I call ‘torture porn’ or ‘gorenography’. It would damage the legacy of the brand.”

All this talk about brands, I tell him, sounds a little calculating. His face falls and he stumbles awkwardly into something a bit more heartfelt: “We want to make intelligent horror. If you look at literature and art, that has always had a fairly deep connection – just look at the original Frankenstein and Dracula. I’d like to make horror noble again, with dark truths… You can sound really pretentious saying this kind of thing.”

He accepts that the jury is still out on the company. How could it be otherwise? But now that he’s stopped talking about branding, and finally given way to his passion, he won’t be stopped. “I feel Hammer can exist in other media too. It will work on TV, online, and in books and comics. We believe it can live in the theatre, and are developing that idea with Sonia Friedman, one of the country’s most successful theatre producers. When we take that on tour it will be great – not circus-time theatre but intelligent theatre that will also be properly frightening. I would go to see that. My mates will go to see that. And my sister’s kids will go to see it.”

Involuntarily, I grin at his enthusiasm and Oakes pounces. “You grinned. You see? You can see it. It’s going to be great! It’s an adventure!”.

The Hammer Festival is at the Idea Generation Gallery, London E2, from October 28 to November 15 ( Hammer Glamour by Marcus Hearn (Titan Books) is out now

2376 words. First published 25 October 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.