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Hammer Vault, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Author: 
Marcus Hearn
Genre: 
Film/Television
Publication Date: 
2011
Publisher: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 
5

In the course of compiling the marvellous store of diverse materials that adorn the pages of this lavish, nostalgic, hardback souvenir-tribute to what must surely be one of the richest of British film legacies in existence, official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn has assiduously combed the vaults of the British Film Institute’s national archive and the rarely glimpsed collections held in trust by Canal + Image UK Limited, in order to supply sources for a host of irresistible treats that his readers will be thrilled to unearth once they delve beyond the attractive, attention-grabbing covers of his latest book, The Hammer Vault. These archival treasures include amongst them a wealth of personal items from many private collections, to which the author has been given privileged access by the myriad numbers of people who have been involved with or employed by the company down the years. The assembled new material includes then-contemporary press clippings, personal scrapbooks, handbills, letters, props, and fascinating internal company memos; then there is pre-publicity material for films that were never actually made, or very early poster designs for projects which were later given quite a different (and usually nowhere near as lurid) slant by the time they actually got to go before the cameras. The result is an object that can justifiably be considered a thing of extreme beauty in of itself: a vibrant treasure trove containing page-after-page-after-page of evocative images culled from a variety of often very rare sources, juxtaposed with countless reproductions of period documents and bundles of rarely seen film stills. All of which will certainly be of major interest to many -- providing the hopeless Hammer junkie with as strong a fix of undiluted Hammer goodness this Christmas as he is liable to be able to mainline in one sitting. Furthermore, the material has been artfully arranged, with the judicious help and good taste of designer Peri Godbold, to complement the author’s lightly sprinkled text accompaniment and the book’s many informative explanatory captions. 

This, though, is not just another bog standard Hammer history documenting the familiar behind-the-scenes tale of a showman's management strategies, engineered by managing director Sir James ‘The Colonel’ Carreras from his base of operations at Hammer House in Wardour Street; or which evokes, yet one more time, the friendly family atmosphere that so informed the making of what is now a world famous roster of films -- the bulk of them produced during the fifties, sixties and seventies, first of all at the converted Thames-side country pile that was known as Down House (but later christened Bray Studios), and, in its latter, more commercially strained years, at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. 

Although the book takes a film-by-film chronological approach, all the same this is really more of a history in pictures of the work and promotional activity which informed the company’s hugely talented backroom publicity department: an image-based chronicle of the concerted group of organised marketing methods it regularly put into practice in the cause of promoting its wares, as an increasingly recognisable brand, to the company's lifeblood of distributors, international production partners, exhibitors and most importantly, of course, the public at large. 

We’re plunged, from the book’s earliest pages, straight into this seething, energetic promotional jungle at a time during the mid-‘50s when it was in one of its most fertile flowerings. For the book starts not with the very earliest genesis of the name Hammer in relation to the world of British film -- when an alliance in the mid-1930s between former failed London comedian Will Hammer and his Spanish-born émigré partner Enrique Carreras came about as a result of their mutual involvement in pre-war film distribution -- but from the company’s very first ‘X’ certificate horror/sci-fi outing in 1955: an adaptation of Nigel Kneal’s BBC television drama, cunningly re-named The Quatermass ‘X’periment to emphasis the story’s predominantly ‘adult’ horror-based nature. By this time, Enrique’s son James had taken over control of the company and the previously discarded Hammer moniker was revived again and registered in 1949 as the name of the production arm of Will and Enrique’s distribution company Exclusive Films. 

Most of the standard promotional practices, at which the publicity machine at Hammer later came to excel, were by this stage already firmly in place. At Down House, alongside the converted rooms and halls now being regularly used as the company’s numerous production offices, construction manager’s offices, the camera department and prop rooms, as well as the canteen and several big production sound stages etc., Hammer also found space for a publicity department and a stills office, in the vital cause of helping to sell their films at home and abroad. Stills man John Jay had worked from a disused toilet when the company had been based at Oakley Court, but at Bray he got to build his own developing laboratory and stills department by converting two old garages in the grounds.

Although Jay left the company in 1955, he frequently returned in a freelance capacity (he worked on the first colour Gothic, The Curse of Frankenstein) while his protégée Tom Edwards took over full-time to produce many of the iconic stills images which have since become almost as instrumental in establishing the iconic status of Hammer Productions down the years as the content of the films themselves; shots such as that which displays the now famous image of Christopher Lee, as Count Dracula, bending menacingly across actress Melissa Stribling in her flouncy nightgown as she stretches out across a bed -- came from a pose set up and photographed by Edwards during the making of the 1958 Terrence Fisher film, and is nowadays as important for most of us in our memories as our knowledge of the film in itself.

Quatermass and the PitStarting with The Quatermass Xperiment, and then continuing onward for the whole of the rest of the company’s existence in its original form as an independent producer of feature films (and therefore displaying itself throughout the rest of this book), Hammer indulged fully in the usual array of promotional literature, advertising features, posters and a multitude of stills and creation of manuals intended for worldwide marketing purposes. In those days exhibitors could expect to be furnished with detailed campaign books, frequently including a plot synopsis, character biogs, photographs and background information on all the actors and actresses who appeared in the film; there were press books, hand bills, and sheets with ideas for attracting publicity from local newspapers; in the UK, front of house stills were provided for display in cinema lobbies while for the US, sets of now highly collectable lobby cards were printed up in abundance. This is the pattern which runs throughout this book’s representation of Hammer’s ferocious marketing of its filmography: the pages are crammed with images of lobby card stills, extracts from articles in trade magazines such as Film Industry and Kine Weekly, and magazine advertisements; often detailed campaign books were produced full of fascinating fluff and eye candy such as photo stories and comic strips, snippets of which we can also see here; novelty publicity items were common – everything from paper napkins (a particularly off the wall gimmick used in the promotion of The Gorgon) to cardboard cut-out fangs issued by Fox as part of its promotional campaign forDracula: Prince of Darkness in the states. Promotional tie-in paperbacks were another common marketing gimmick from the period. The Hammer scholar Wayne Kinsey, in his excellent book “Hammer Films: the Unsung Heroes”, writes that by looking at the progress reports sheets still in existence from the period, it can be gleaned that at least 79 rolls of black & white film and 77 rolls of colour film were used on shooting stills during the making of Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. He estimates that at least 2000 colour images must have existed from these sessions, yet only a small fraction of this material is known still to exist. 

The story must be the same for the vast majority of the department’s output, which only now occasionally crops up as scraps surviving from contact sheets.

This books features a number of such rarely seen curios reprinted, though they must constitute only the merest slither of what would have once existed. As the economic fortunes of the company grew more difficult after the break from its central base of production at Bray, glamour photography, centred on exploiting the looks of the film’s young female starlets became more and more common. A surviving contact sheet from a 1970 photo shoot by Mary and Madeline Collinson conducted for Playboy (in which the girls appear throughout in skimpy white undies) and which was instrumental in seeing them cast in the film Twins of Evil is included, along with less revealing glamour images of actress Lynne Frederick from Vampire Circus, photographed by Ricky Smith on the Pinewood studio set.

Providing the painterly sumptuousness and bold dashes of colour that frequently enliven the pages of Hearn’s book, we have the gorgeous work of the group of artists responsible for producing Hammer’s distinctive poster designs, which includes names such as Bill Wiggins, Mike Vaughn and Tom Chantrell among their like. The latter Manchester-born artist figures as instrumental in what became James Carreras’ main strategy for securing American backing during Hammer’s heyday. Carreras would travel to New York for meetings with top distributors, taking with him a bunch of ideas, sometimes just titles, for which he would have already commission lurid posters to be produced with a flourish during his meetings with these top officials from Fox, Columbia or MGM, etc. Only after securing their backing for the concept would actual scripts be commissioned and a schedule for production actually worked out. Thus it is that we find within these pages not just early drafts of later well-known posters, but early poster ideas dating from the pre-production period, when story ideas often existed as nothing more concrete than a vague concept developed with the intention of wooing distributors. Hammer became adept at forging any number of package deals with the American majors using these kinds of promotional methods and Tom Chantrell seems to have been the principle go-to man for providing the pre-production artwork chiefly responsible for developing their interest -- even after his stint as a regular poster artist for the company had come to an end. 

There is some marvellous stuff included here, much of it painted in a style that was about ten times as garish and lurid as would have been allowed for the finished poster designs, and often essaying radically different ideas to that which eventually came to represent these films. There are plenty of fine examples from films we now know extremely well, such as a gorgeously ripe image portraying Doctor Jekyll & Sister Hyde (commissioned two days after Brian Clemens first suggested the title) blooming with the oily saturated yellows of a classic Victorian "pea-souper", flowering magentas and deep 

ocean blues. The imagery Chantrell came up with for his pre-production work on Hands of the Ripper bears such a close resemblance to the look of Jess Franco’s The Female Vampire -- depicting a nubile, bare breasted female in a long black cape slashing the throat of an equally buxom and bare breasted victim -- that one has to wonder if the great Spanish maverick had somehow seen it and been inspired by it. 

DraculaChantrell's two early paintings for Countess Dracula – with their bilious greens splashed with sickly droplets of deepest crimson --are floridly redolent of European 'horrotica' such as the type at which Franco came to specialise; yet the films themselves of course were never quite able to match this 'artistic' level of exploitation promise: what eventually became Jimmy Sangster’s comparatively tame suspense thriller Fear in the Night for instance, started out life as something wholly more disreputable-looking called The Claw, which features another bare breasted victim on the poster art (who looks uncannily like Ingrid Pitt) being menaced and apparently throttled by an assailant with one black ‘clawed’ glove, wearing a smashed pair of dark shades as rivulets of dripping blood are smeared across the luridly rendered image. Also of particular interest are Chantrell’s radically stylised early designs for Dracula A.D 1972 (which at one stage appears to have been titled Dracula Chelsea 1972) featuring a naked, ‘hippy’, body painted model, spread-eagled, in one instance at least, across a car bonnet! Surely even more tantalising are the proposed poster designs for those Hammer projects that never came to be: the ‘tits and swords’ historical romp The Reluctant Virgin(also known as The Bride of Newgate), Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls and Vampirella all had poster art commissioned which is reproduced here. 

Information about a few of the other film projects that never came to be is revealed in some especially important ephemera buried amongst the many scrapbooks of production drawings, annotated script pages, and internal memos and letters that were distributed around the casts and crew over the years, and which now flavour the pages of this book with some of its extra spice. There’s some fascinating stuff here (one particular favourite of mine is a covering letter for a script delivered by Jimmy Sangster which opens dryly: ‘Enclosed please find a script for my latest epic …’) but none so enthralling as the thank you cards, letters and pages of detailed script annotations provided in the scrapbooks of Peter Cushing, which only go to add to the impression of the actor’s consummate professionalism and gentle, good mannered civility. One of the mooted films which never in the end emerged was to have been Hammer’s attempt to create another brutal wartime drama in the style of their controversial 1958 Japanese prisoner of war film The Camp on Blood Island – a French resistance drama from a Don Houghton script entitled The Savage Jackboot, in which Hammer had hoped to cast Peter Cushing in the role of a ruthless Nazi alongside Yul Brynner and Jack Palance. Although the project never got off the ground, Peter Cushing obviously took it seriously enough to produce several inked watercolours depicting characters from the film, two of which are reproduced among these pages and reveal the actor's ever fastidious attention to detail. 

As we come to the final pages of the book, and production sketches for the Hammer/Rank Organisation remake of The Lady Vanishes heralds the end of what had often been an acrimonious family-run business thanks to the difficult working relationship endured by Sir James and his producer son Michael, who took over his father’s role as Managing Director in 1970 and bought out his share of the company in 1973 (by which time the climate in the British film industry had already become too difficult for Hammer to continue for much longer, thanks to the almost total withdrawal of American money) – Hearn’s text moves on to explore the first attempt to revive the Hammer brand name for television, which occurred when former board members Brian Lawrence and Roy Skeggs were appointed nominee directors by the company’s creditors. 

Lawrence and Skeggs set up their own production company, Cinema Arts and, alongside Lew Grade’s ITC, created the fondly remembered Hammer House of Horror anthology series, reviving the Hammer family model of working by using former girls’ school Hampden House as a combined production base, shooting location and studio. Unfortunately, their follow-up, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense failed to build on the Hammer legacy and despite various announcements and attempts to revive the brand name throughout the last decade, it wasn’t until the Dutch consortium Cyrte Investments, headed by John de Mol -- a media tycoon who was also behind the creation of Big Brother through his production company Endemol -- bought the rights to the Hammer name and movie catalogue, and appointed Simon Oakes as chairman in a bid to revive the Hammer moniker in service of its own wish to break into feature film production, that attempts to bring about a resurgence in the Hammer brand met with any success.

Taking a distinctive, retro, red-on-black-background sixties-style font for its attractive yet simple new logo -- similar in fact to that which can be seen on the company memos routinely issued from Hammer House during the company’s mid-sixties glory days -- the ‘new’ Hammer has itself been carefully and consciously marketed as a brand intended to appear both vital, stylish and modern while still suggesting continuity with the original Hammer’s illustrious past. So, as well as documenting the creation and promotion of the Hammer brand’s image down the years, this gorgeous looking hardback can also be seen as being part of the on-going process by which the present incarnation of the company attempts to position itself as the legitimate heir of that much-loved Hammer Horror legacy. The cover sums up the tone of this approach beautifully: the stylish new Hammer logo, embossed in shiny red, appears next to a classic poster image originally created by artist Bill Wiggins in 1958 for the Terrence Fisher film Dracula; the darkened backing for this stark-red new Hammer font meanwhile, reveals upon closer inspection a series of tinted images of classic Hammer movie posters and advertisements, by means of which the company originally founded the image that resonates still so profoundly with us today. Hearn’s text presents the Hammer legacy as one smooth, unbroken story that extends from the past right up to the present day, with the new Hammer now apparently beginning to hit its stride as audience tastes turn away from the nihilism of the torture porn genre to more thoughtful, classically influenced tales such as Let Me In -- Matt Reeves’ adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Låt den rätte komma in, which may have subsequently had much of its thunder stolen by the precedence of the Swedish language original, directed by Tomas Alfredson, but served its purpose well enough in introducing the new Hammer Productions as a dependable, classy originator of a style of filmmaking that was intelligent and contemporary but grounded in the classicism of British horror’s past. That image has continued to be perpetuated with the projects the company has selected to involve itself in promoting over the last few years – the creepy pagan rebirth horror of Wake Wood, the suspense thriller The Resident (which also brought Christopher Lee back into the Hammer fold while at the same time exploiting an international setting) and the forthcoming adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black, which promises, with its period Edwardian setting, to fulfil the duel requirements of providing the kind of English Gothic aesthetic that has traditionally always been associated with the Hammer name, while also continuing to position the company as a purveyor of a modern subtle form of horror with its roots in the classic MR James-influenced tradition which Hill’s original story so adroitly imitated with great success. 

The Hammer legacy, at this present moment in time, seems set to live on for many more years to come -- and as far more than just an important part of British film history. This wonderful book demonstrates the instinct for imaginative showmanship which has always motivated those charged with carrying the torch at any one time, to continue seeking out new ways of keeping the flame burning -- and in doing so it shows us precisely why that name is likely to remain a vital part of our appreciation and contributes in a small way to that being so. Highly recommended. 

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