Hammer will forever supplant itself in the minds and nightmares of cinemagoers, largely because of its run of lavish full colour horror spectaculars in the 1950’s. When The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) became a huge hit, it was quickly followed by a string of midnight creature features like Dracula, The Mummy and Curse of the Werewolf; and if the earlier Universal monsters had been a grim reflection of depression era America, then this new studio’s brand of scares were bursting with post-war desires and uniquely British yearnings for sexual liberation. Yet, by the end of the 60’s, which ushered in a wave of new films like Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, the UK company’s house style was beginning to look decidedly dated. In an effort to claw back some of its dwindling audience, it sought to sex up its operation.
Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1971) drips with carnal intention; Ingrid Pitt in the title role, becomes both classic monster and dissolute sex-kitten in a money saving genius move. Based on the real-life Elizabeth Bathory murder case, Pitt elicits a brooding sexiness and abject cruelty as she lures her young female victims to their horrible deaths. Despite the title, it feels closer to Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde than it might to Lee’s Dracula. The piece is dominated by a duality of wills, a toxic mix of conflicting ideas. It is both classic Hammer and not, it is gothic, yet more natural in its look, straightforward yet oddly stylised with use of its Eastmancolor and low angle, off kilter camera shots. It’s a supernatural thriller and seedy serial killer study, it’s deranged and depraved and enormously satisfying.
Sasdy’s other offering of that year, Hands of the Ripper, dipped into another real-life criminal case, this time, the famous so called Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Set some years after the Whitechapel killings, the story weaves in themes of exploitation and manipulation, and paints a lurid and critical picture of Victorian England with all its hypocrisies, misogyny and misguided liberal thinking. Though its 19th century setting places it in familiar territory, it also feels distanced from the studio’s earlier silk lined cape, good versus evil affairs, prefiguring as it does the raft of possession-based films that were to come later that decade.
Twins of Evil (1971), the third movie in the Karnstein trilogy, which had previously given us The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire, was one of the studios more blatant attempts to lure audiences back into the cinema via means of erotica and seduction. Riffing on the work of European soft-porn merchants like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, it ramps up the sexual charge by casting Playboy stars Madeline and Mary Collinson in the leads, alongside a visibly aged and slightly embarrassed Peter Cushing. None the less, it makes for an entertaining and deliriously delicious lustful vampire romp; and if anything, it proved Hammer wasn’t quite dead yet.
Andrew Graves Performance Poet, Writer and Workshop Facilitator
Use the discount code NETWORKBLOGHAMMERHORROR to receive 25% off Countess Dracula (Blu-ray & DVD), Hands of the Ripper (Blu-ray & DVD), and Twins of Evil (Blu-ray & DVD) until 4pm, Friday 20th March.