SYNOPSIS: Everything you ever wanted to know about Britain's most infamous house of horrors, Hammer Films, is here for the staking. A photo-and-fact-filled coffee table book that details the intricacies of the studio's many hits, and misses.
REVIEW: Devout fans of horror - especially the horror of yesteryear - will surely drool like savages over Marcus Hearn's The Hammer Vault; although they should make sure that saliva doesn't drip on any of the book's colorful, informative pages, lest they ruin what is easily one of the best coffee table books of its type. Lovingly put together by someone who obviously treasures the famed British production company as much as the most obsessive fan, The Hammer Vault makes one feel like they've been given free reign to the studio's cellar, where all of the forgotten photographs, conceptual posters, script pages and correspondences are kept.
An idea of what your average Hammer Vault page looks like
The book's introduction admits that it doesn't seek to provide a complete history of the company, but a selective peek at some of its most notable (and in some cases, its most obscure) titles. The format of the book is fairly simple: approximately two pages is devoted to each Hammer films, with anecdotes complementing the crystal clear pictures. The latter is where the real pleasure lays. Devotees of Hammer Films, or just classic horror movie lovers, will really enjoy the behind-the-scenes stills of actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee hanging out on set; or the candid shots of the cast and crew attending the premiere of the films. There are also plenty of vintage posters, article snippets, old publicity stills, screenplay samples and everything in between. It's a visual feast, offering far moreH eye candy than in-depth info about the studio, but by the end you should certainly feel like you know Hammer Films and its history with an insider's knowledge.
Of course, the Hammer must-sees - CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and their myriad sequels - are given their respectful due, but they stand side-by-side with less memorable titles; war films like CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, and crime thrillers like HELL IS A CITY, were frankly news to this reader, but it was a pleasure delving into the genres that Hammer played around with while not spraying blood on cobblestone walls. (Imagine my surprise when I learned they made a handful of swashbuckling pirate pictures for a "junior audience".)
Hammer's most beloved "matinee idols", Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing
The most fascinating details come with looking at the release strategies of the films, and the subsequent outrage from critics and censors. Remember, Hammer's heyday was in the late 50s and early 60s, so their style of over-the-top horror was practically obscene. The British Board of Film Classification was a frequent and vocal critic of the studio; one of their script readers said about X: THE UNKNOWN, a sci-fi creature feature, "This is a mixture of scientific hokum and sadism in equal parts. We cannot stop the from making the film, but I think it will revolt many people." The newspapers didn't dance to the studio's song either; The Daily Telegraph, taking umbrage at DRACULA's "X" certificate (which in those days meant only audience members 16 and over could see the film), had this to say: "There should be a new certificate: 'S' for sadistic or just 'D' for disgusting." These are just samples; the book contains plenty of entertaining (and quaint) slanders against the Hammer folks.
But Hammer's films proved to be a draw despite the frequent tsk tsk from the puritanical critics. Perhaps it was the studio's hard sell approach to getting their movies into theaters; in the book you'll find many of Hammer's trade advertisements for their pictures, impressing upon theater owners to carry their products. One such ad chides: "If you haven't booked it, you don't like money!" Although to read one of Hammer's founders, James Carreras, tell it, they didn't have any trouble getting their movies to the marketplace. In one amusing transcript from a 1970 promotional film for Hammer, Carreras describes the Hammer formula thusly: "We think to ourselves, what's a good title, and we think TO LOVE A VAMPIRE. And then we make a poster. And with this poster I go around to see distributors and say, 'How would you like to have a picture called TO LOVE A VAMPIRE? And they say 'Wonderful, when can I have it?' So I say, 'Perhaps we can deliver it in about six months time.' And I say, 'Do you want to see a script or know who's in it?' They say 'Don't bother about that. This is a Hammer film. We know we'll be alright.'"
Christopher Lee, as Frankenstein's monster, checks out some film
The book, as you can tell, is filled with such wonderful tales from behind the scenes of the studio; there are more fun facts than you could wave a rubber bat at. (Another example: Hammer put a lot of effort into turning Christopher Lee into a "matinee idol" when DRACULA was being released; the studio, pulling out the stops, pushed Lee as an eligible bachelor and heartthrob to help entice the female audience. Fancy that?) The book is also quite current, with pages devoted to recent Hammer fare like WAKE WOOD, LET ME IN and the upcoming Daniel Radcliffe-led remake of THE WOMAN IN BLACK.
I've left little doubt that this would be a perfect addition to any horror lover's livingroom (or crypt). As it's the holidays, I can't really think of a better gift to give to your favorite creature of the night.