Curse of the Middlebrows
Hammer Films, Critics and Audiences

Darren Slade

Talking Pictures alias






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Beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Hammer horror films were hugely popular with the public while critics reviled or ignored them. Its a contradiction which reveals much about critical prejudices of the time. Here I will attempt to look at the attitudes which failed to usefully engage horror films; and secondly to take an admittedly sketchy look at the pleasures for the audience which constituted the Hammer ‘formula'. 

Hammer and the Critics 

Critics of the 1950s constantly told us horror movies were not worthy of serious consideration, yet never really told us why not. It's an attitude epitomised by Sight and Sound's four- line review of Dracula, which dismissed the film as a 'polished but unatmospheric recital of the horror repertoire' (1). The magazine's three-star rating system for 'films most likely to be of special interest to Sight and Sound readers' ignores Dracula in favour of Andrzej Wajda's Kanal illustrating a critical orthodoxy which deems continental and ‘art’ films more deserving of analysis than mainstream cinema. 'The horror repertoire' is dismissed out of hand, without any attempt even to define what it is. 

Reviews of Hammer films constantly try to remind us that they are not to be judged alongside 'serious' cinema. Hence, Tribune rants in reviewing The Curse of Frankenstein: ‘Depressing, degrading - for all lovers of the cinema only two words describe this film’ (2); and Peter John Dyer in Films and Filming says of Dracula: ‘There are boring horror films, and tasteless horror films. This new version of Dracula is a boring, tasteless horror film.’ (3

Even the rare favourable reviews given to Hammer output concede points of technical merit rather than apply any critical thought to them. Hence the Monthly Film Bulletin notes Dracula ‘achieves effective climaxes, and the staging could hardly be better’ (4); and The People calls The Brides of Dracula ‘a well made shocker which doesn't pretend to do anything but make you shudder‘. (5

To further mark the distinction between mainstream and 'serious' cinema, many reviewers single out the horror film as a subject for weak attempts at humour. Dyer remarks of Dracula that Transylvania looks suspiciously like Sussex; the Count (Christopher Lee) reminds me of nothing so much as a precocious head prefect who's been up all night reading James Hadley Chase. (6

And Nina Hibbin, in an astounded review for the Daily Worker, writes that she found Dracula's Eastman Colour horrors so repugnant as to spoil the good laugh she was expecting: 

I went to see Dracula, a Hammer film, prepared to enjoy a nervous giggle. I was even ready to poke gentle fun of it. I came away revolted and outraged. (7

Even the favourable review in Monthly Film Bulletin ends up denigrating Michael Gough's performance in Dracula by punning on the word ‘bloodless'. 

Of course, critics (like audiences) often laugh at horror movies as a way of plugging their ears to what the films have to say -  and middlebrow film reviewers did tend to find the Hammer films aesthetically and ideologically disturbing. The impulse to mock the films was perhaps also conditioned by the 1940s image of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster as comic stooges for Abbott and Costello. But the effect of writing like this is to marginalise horror films as subjects for ridicule, self-evidently not worthy of further discussion. 

British critics were eager to talk about acting and stars, so it's interesting to look at what they said about horror film stars. Hibbin's Dracula review makes no comment about Christopher Lee and doesn't even mention Peter Cushing, but bemoans the ‘misuse of one of Britain's finest character actors', i.e. Miles Malleson as an undertaker. The implication is that it's a waste for an actor who had similarly brief parts in 'establishment' films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Brothers In Law (1957) to make the crossover into horror films. 

In a sustained attack on the genre for Sight and Sound, Derek Hill notes: 

The success of British horror films has had some curious incidental results. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee have now, apparently, joined Alec Guinness to become the only three British stars whose names attract American cinemagoers. (8

The message is that if an actor achieves popular success through horror movies, it must be a freak phenomena and nothing to do with being any good. 

While Hammer horrors were being excoriated by the critics, other movies which claimed to challenge the dominant values of British society and cinema were meeting with approval. Look Back in Anger (1958), Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) etc. may have raised some censorial eyebrows, but critics were prepared to defend them. But, for all their claims to be different, these 'angry young man' movies were calculated to appeal to the critical orthodoxy in one crucial respect: they fitted in with the British love of 'realism'. 

This virtual obsession with realism had dominated British criticism since the John Grierson documentaries of the 1930s, and is the single most stultifying aspect of critical orthodoxy in Britain, as critic Julian Petley and others have argued. (9) Whatever 'realism' actually meant (and the middlebrows were woefully confused on that score), horror movies were not realistic. The fact that horror films might have something to say about society was irrelevant: they didn't say it within a realistic framework. Instead they said it through the 'horror repertoire', so it wasn't listened to. 

Hammer films explored the realms of myth, rather than the slums of Manchester and Nottingham; they were in colour (critics often inexplicably see black and white as more 'realistic', presumably because of the Grierson tradition); and they came from a Gothic, anti-realist, tradition. 

Interwoven with the predilection for realism was a preoccupation with what Petley calls the ‘socially responsible’ film. ‘Worthy’ films were those which tried to impart an insightful or reformist social message. While there were plenty of interesting ideas at work in Hammer films, most critics could see no further than the gore. Many saw gore that wasn't there - Dyer's review of Dracula refers to:

Blood dripping on Dracula's coffin, trickling down his chin, streaming all over Mina's nighty, you get it all over your hands and your neck and your teeth and it's pumped into you and out of you and no wonder the make-up man's name is Phil Leakey. (10

In fact, there are only three acts of vampirism in the film and only one shot of an outpouring of blood. Ironically, critics like these tended to accuse Hammer of doing away with the power of suggestion, yet here the film has clearly suggested to Dyer that he's seen more violence than he actually has. 

Just as unpalatable to critics was the sexuality in the new horror films. Hammer's films were often set in Eastern Europe, but the characters are clearly intended to come from British Victorian society. The eruption of socially unacceptable sexuality into this repressive atmosphere makes the films a simultaneously cathartic and disturbing experience for the viewer. In Dracula, there is a scene in which the undead Lucy (Carol Marsh) preys upon her niece Tania (Janine Faye) in a graveyard. Apart from the fact that Lucy looks like a drug addict (a potent social problem in the 1950s), there are obvious overtones of lesbianism, incest, child molestation and necrophilia - and the sensual potential of the scene is heightened by the use of soft blue hues. At this point, the Daily Worker's Nina Hibbin seems to have been ready to keel over. ‘To add to the horror,’ her review shrieks, ‘a little child is involved.’ (11

Here, Petley and others bring in the ideas of Freud. Horror films dealt with violent and sexual impulses which society repressed; through the gothic cinema, these forces exploded into a film culture which branded them undesirable. But I don't think it's necessary to take Freud on board to argue that Hammer films were exciting because they allowed the intrusion of tabooed subjects into a cinema dominated by middlebrows. 

Hammer horrors were, of course, hugely popular, and this raises a problem for critics. If the movies were not even worthy of serious discussion, what does that say about those who enjoyed them? Few tried to address this problem, but one isolated attempt to come to terms with the popularity of horror movies was Derek Hill's 1958 article 'The Face of Horror' in Sight and Sound. Hill's argument is simple: if millions of people like these films, the nation must be ill. ‘Only a sick society could bear the hoardings, let alone see the films‘, he begins. The popularity of horror and science fiction genres shows a ‘steadily accelerating corruption of the public's appetite.’ (12

Like the Mary Whitehouse types today, Hill believes horror films corrupt a weak-minded public which soaks them up passively. If horror movies are allowed to exist, he says, they threaten to create a society concerned with the gratification of sado-masochistic desires above all else. Hill invokes Frederick Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, a preposterous tirade against horror comics, to support his case. Of the film companies he writes: 

no 'give them what they want' formula can excuse their irresponsibility. This wasn't what anyone wanted - until they were given it. (13

This kind of argument sees viewers split into two groups. On one hand, we are given the image of the responsible audience, consisting of professional critics and a superior strain of the cinema-going public; by contrast, people who enjoy gothic fantasies are marginalised as philistine, eccentric and morally depraved. 

All this may sound like pointless carping about critics who were writing 35 years ago. But the issues are important, firstly because they reveal so much about the world into which the Hammer horrors were released; and secondly because many of these attitudes still hold sway. 

Attempts to re-vitalise film criticism in Britain often passed over the horror genre. When Lindsay Anderson and others tried to revolutionise thinking on film by launching Sequence, they announced their contempt for the mass audience; and while the auteurists who founded Movie in the late 1960s re-evaluated lesser-known horror directors like Seth Holt, they dismissed the likes of Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis as pedestrian hacks. 

David Pirie's book A Heritage of Horror went a long way, towards putting the record straight, noting that
‘the shameful waste of artistic talent during the 1950s for which the British film industry is rightly notorious can be almost directly linked to the negligible standard of writing about films in this country at that time.’ (14) But the old attitudes remain, even among a new generation of critics. In a 1985 book designed to celebrate the national cinema in British Film Year, Gilbert Adair trots out some familiar criticisms: 

Hammer tended to rely, for its directors, on such perfectly competent but somewhat unexciting old hands of the industry as Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis ...It was in response to this climate of rampant commercialism, artistic mediocrity and vanishing audiences that the 'Free Cinema' movement evolved. (15

This middlebrow orthodoxy has meant Hammer films have usually been discussed on the fringes of film criticism, instead of at the centre where they belong. But the genre actually owes the middlebrows a favour, because this prevailing stuffiness made the explosion of gothic fantasy which began with The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula seem all the more vibrant. 

Studio as genre: the Hammer formula

The act that Hammer films spawned fan magazines with titles like House of Hammer, Hammer's Halls of Horror and Little Shoppe of Horrors (and that TV series in 1980 and 1985 were called Hammer House of Horror and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense) points to one of the key attractions of the films: more than any other studio in British history, Hammer had a 'house style'. The word Hammer was the selling point; the studio name denoted a genre of its own. 

The production background of Hammer films ensured a continuity of style which added to their appeal. Hammer's horrors almost literally came from a house, since Bray Studios, the company's base from 1950 to 1966, was a converted manor home which boasted only four sound stages even after Hammer expanded it. Films were made cheaply (The Curse of Frankenstein cost £65,000 in 1956, Dracula £75,000 in 1957); staff were under contract so the same credits crop up in film after film. Terence Fisher directed 17 Hammer films; Jimmy Sangster wrote 12. 

As well as giving the company a competitive edge, Hammer's small scale production methods actually enhanced the viewer's pleasure. Hammer fans (and I'm one) enjoy collecting anecdotes and items of trivia about the films' production, and love to spot the same sets being re-used between films. Dracula - Prince of Darkness, shot between April 26 and June 4 1965, had to complete its interiors to allow Rasputin - The Mad Monk to take over the sets. The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile (both 1966) similarly shared the same sets, and even after Hammer left Bray, the same backgrounds can be spotted in, for example, The Vengeance of She and The Devil Rides Out (1968) or The Twins of Evil (1971) and Vampire Circus (1972). 

Interviews with Hammer personnel tend to reflect this continuity of staff, resources and consequently style. Special effects man Les Bowie said of Dracula

I did it for wages really, not as a proper special effects man who is usually allotted a certain budget when he works on a film. I think I received £50 a week. (16
As well as opening up this area of pleasure to the aficionado. the continuity of setting is important to the way Hammer films operated. Hammer films are basically about monstrous forces in safe 'normal' worlds; and this clash was all the more potent when the normal world remained consistently recognisable from film to film through their use of sets, a continuity of visual style and the population of the films with a regular core of actors who virtually constituted a repertory company (Michael Ripper, for example, appeared in virtually all Hammer s films at their peak). 

Another way of labelling this continuity between films is to say Hammer made its films according to formula. This fact has often been acknowledged by the people who made them. Peter Cushing, for example, has said: 

it's rather like those who buy their favourite brand of chocolates ...they know when they see this kind of film they'll get what they're looking for. (17

Critics tend to regard 'formula' as a dirty word implying philistinism and safeness (hence Sight and Sound's dismissal of 'the horror repertoire‘). But formulas can be the basis of radical and challenging films, as was the case with many of Britain's horror movies. 

It's useful to try to pin down some of the key elements of the Hammer formula. Hammer horrors were almost always set in an emotionally repressive society redolent of Victorian England. Often the nominal setting was a fictitious part of Eastern Europe, but casting, decor and dialogue suggested Britain in the 1890s (the Dracula films also tended to feature characters from Victorian England thrust into a bizarre and threatening foreign situation). Moral normality in these worlds is usually represented by monogamous male-female relationships (the bland leading couple became more and more a feature of Hammer horrors), rigid class structures, traditional relationships between the generations and the dominance of Christian ethics and symbolism. 

Into this normality intrudes the monster. The monster's appearance may happen early in the film or be delayed for suspenseful effect. Its appearance is usually accompanied by sudden use of startling stylistic devices: extreme close-ups, pronounced camera movement and special effects replace the more sedate pace of the film thus far, so that the disruption of normality is represented in form as well as content. 
Those involved in producing horror films often defend them on the grounds that they are modern day morality plays. But although this may be true up to a point, it is not unproblematically true, because in the British horror film the monster is usually appealing in some way. The monster represents anti-social or sexually aberrant impulses which are attractive despite their repression by 'normal' society. (At face value, there is a problem with the Frankenstein series here, but Peter Cushing's Baron can be seen as the anti-social yet attractive monster, rather than the creatures he creates.) As a result of this clash, the viewer is torn between enjoying the tabooed behaviour being indulged in by the monster and willing the taboos to be re-imposed in the name of 'morality' and 'normality'. 

The monster's first prey is usually an unsuspecting and terrified victim. But in the second stage of the narrative,  the monster usually succeeds in corrupting a member of ‘normal’ society, often by unleashing urges which that individual has repressed.(Barbara Shelley's character in Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966) is the most vividly remembered example of this.) 

The third phase of the narrative is the rooting out and destruction of the monster by the guardians of morality. (Again, the Frankenstein films operate slightly differently: the Baron is usually destroyed either by his own ambition or meddling by narrow-minded members of normal society.) At the film's climax, the monstrous character is destroyed (the method of destruction is one of the sources of narrative surprise and pleasure) and his corruptive hold on one of the 'normal' characters broken. But the monster is rarely permanently destroyed. As we, have seen, the viewer has largely been willing the monster’s destruction but has also enjoyed aspects of its aberrant behaviour, and this contradiction is acknowledged in the possibility that the monster will come back to disrupt social normality anew in a further sequel. Fortunately for British film culture, Dracula or Frankenstein would be back to horrify critics again. 

Notes and References. 

1. Anon., Sight and Sound, vol. 27, no. 5, Summer 1958, p. 21. 

2. Cited Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook, London, Batsford, 1983, p. 37.

3. Peter John Dyer, 'Dracula', in Films and Filming, vol. 4, no. 10, July 1958, p. 27. 

4. Anon., 'Dracula', in Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 294, July 1958, p. 27. 

5. Cited Frank op. cit., p. 26. 

6. Dyer, op. cit, 27.

7. Nina Hibbin, 'Dracula’s macabre decline', in the Daily Worker, May 24 1959, p. 2.

8. Derek Hill, 'The Face of Horror', in Sight and Sound vol. 28, no. 1, winter 1958/59, p. 9. 

9. Julian Petley, 'The Lost Continent', in Charles Barr, ed., All Our Yesterdays - 90 Years of British Cinema, London, BFI, 1986. 

10. Dyer, op. cit., p. 27. 

11. Hibbin, op. cit., p. 2. 

12. Hill, op. cit., p. 6, p.10. 

13. Ibid., p. 8. 

14. David Pirie, A Heritage of Horror - The English Gothic Cinema 1945-72, London, Gordon Fraser, 
1973, p. 8. 

15. Gilbert Adair, 'The British Tradition', in Gilbert Adair and Nick Roddick, A Night at the Pictures - Ten Decades of British Film, Kent, Columbus/British Film Year, 1985, p. ; 64, p. 66. 

16. Cited .in John Bosnan, Movie Magic, London, Abacus Edition, 1977, p. 75; orlg. pub. London, MacDonald and Jane's, 1974. 

17. Interviewed by Edward Buscombe, Making Legend of the Werewolf, London, BFI Educational, 
1974, p. 23.

Also see:

Jimmy Sangster: Man of Horror

Hammer Horrors

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