I must have received psychic signals from Transylvania (and Mr. Peel) that it was Sir Christopher Lee’s birthday this week as I’ve been on a serious Hammer Films/Dracula binge all month. Although I grew up a total Monster Kid, bathed in the glow of “Creature Features” amid all the usual genre toys and magazines, I was never a hardcore Hammer Films devotee; I loved the bosomy women and gothic gore, but the films tended to be “stiff upper lipped,” demanding writers and directors who could kick the doors off the gentile English horror. Terence Fischer had a nice classicist eye though I prefered Roger Corman’s stylish and lively AIP Vincent Price pictures. Of course, I was always enthralled by Lee and Peter Cushing, the Lennon-McCartney of the 60’s Hammer genre, but I didn’t completely give myself over to Hammer because the films felt too cold, uncaring and cynical. Yet that’s exactly what separated them from their American cine-brethren: Cushing’s Victor Von Frankenstein was a callous brute, even having his maid-lover murdered to keep her bloody well quiet. Lee’s Dracula had little ingratiating charm like Lugosi, but was more feral and imposing. The films were spartan in their sentimentality.
I did have a selection of Hammer Films that I adored growing up, particularly Ray Harryhausen’s ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1963), oddities like THE LOST CONTINENT (1968) and sc-fi classics like QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1968) along with Hammer off-shoots such as THE ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED (1966). And let’s not forget the only Hammer Film to be nominated for an Academy Award: WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) featuring Jim Danforth’s excellent Oscar-worthy effects. Often the elements were there for potential greatness, as in CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974), whose title alone should have made it a smash. Christopher Lee tired of the cultural-commercial machinations his Prince Of Darkness was subjected to, even though DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) was Hammer’s biggest hit, with help from a clever camp marketing campaign (see above) and the colorful direction of Freddie Francis. Still, one can sympathize with Lee after DRACULA A.D. 1972, featuring a pack of swingin’ Londoners who dabble in the black arts; a silly film saved by Cushing’s sincerity and Lee’s bloodthirstiness (but it’s still fun: mod vampires!). The last Peter Cushing and Hammer Dracula epic, THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974) is a fantastic kung-fu blood-sucker mash-up and with more energetic, inventive direction, could have been a classic. Hammer was in dire straits in the mid-70’s, so much so that they took out an ad in “Famous Monsters Of Filmland” asking fans to send in a checklist of what they wanted to see next onscreen (I filled mine out but neglected to send it off).
Thanks to the advent of widescreen VHS and DVD releases, I’ve been revisiting Hammer Films over the past decade, finally getting a chance to savor them in their proper cuts and aspect ratios. Many hold up quite well, and if they lack the vitality of their Yank counterparts, they more than made-up in style and exploitation. As stated, the Hammer babes were the best: Ingrid Pitt, Raquel Welch, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, among others. The sexual vibes were more pronounced and again, the performances of Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee always elevated the deficiencies in plot or direction. I’m thrilled Hammer Films is back in business and look forward to a new generation of cinematic sci-fi gothic burnt offerings. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Sir Lee.