OH, THE HAMMER HORROR OF IT ALL by Stephanie de Pue
It's not every upstart movie studio that would take on Frankenstein and Dracula, the two great classics of the horror genre, starring, no less, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the two greatest stars of the game. But the British organization, Hammer Films did, and made its name that way; it also made the names of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and several others by so doing. Therefore, while I was resident in England in 1973, and a practicing freelance journalist, I decided to try to look into the whys and wherefores, and interviewed several of the people involved. These interviews have never been published; my contemporaneous account of them follows. Here they are, still at their peaks, masters of horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s.
Though I was in that hotel lobby for the sole purpose of meeting Christopher Lee, my blood ran pretty cold when he walked through the door. For, there's nothing of the ordinary about him at all: Christopher Lee, even in broad daylight and without his fangs, looks like Count Dracula. He's 6'5", tall, slim, with great physical presence; he has a unique walk, that Terence Fisher, director of the Dracula films, says is "ethereal-you really believe this is a man who can walk through walls, or fly, at will;" his skin is sallow, dark, with a noticeable five o'clock shadow. His hair is black, receding on top and graying at the sideburns; his eyes are a smoldering dark brown: Fisher calls them "superbly expressive." Lee is wearing a nicely tailored tweed suit, and he's got gold buckles on his Gucci loafers.
Lee apologizes for his having asked me to meet him here, at Flemings, one of London's small, anonymous West End hotels, favored by theatrical types . But his house, in Cadogan Square, Chelsea ( the address of a really successful person)is being painted.
Lee seats himself at a table, opposite a mirror, that reassures me somewhat (vampires are supposed to avoid mirrors. Being actually dead, they have no reflections; that makes mirrors, dare we say it, dead giveaways?)
The actor began his career at Hammer Films in 1956, playing Frankenstein's monster to Peter Cushing's mad scientist; he then played an Egyptian mummy, entirely swathed in bandages, to Cushing's archaeologist, and the heir of the Baskervilles to Cushing's Sherlock Holmes. Then Cushing played Von Helsing to his Dracula, and the picture grossed over $5 million, a tidy sum back then and well beyond its cost. It also made Lee a worldwide star, with fan clubs scattered across America, especially on the college campuses.
Dracula is "monstrous, not a monster," Lee says; he believes his movies are popular because they are "entertainment, pure and simple, on a very low level," and the public "likes simple entertainments."
Actors, he says, make their names not, unfortunately, by being good, but by being associated with successful pictures, and he has certainly made his as the embodiment of Count Dracula: at that point, he'd made seven Hammer horror pictures in 16 years.
He did not think he was stereotyped as Dracula: he'd made many other movies. Nor did he plan to turn his back on Dracula: he'd be foolish to do so, he says, as "it is an area in which he is virtually guaranteed success." However, having achieved success at 51, he did not intend to do any more Draculas if the scripts weren't good enough, though he's been told, he said, that he "has the knack of doing trash as if he were reading from the Bible."
"World-wide audiences," he said, "like his personality on the screen and will accept him now in many parts. He is no longer limited, if ever he was, strictly to Dracula or even to horror." Lee says he speaks seven languages fluently, and had, at that time, made 18 movies in the past two years. One for his own production company, two comedies, Billy Wilder's unsuccessful take on Sherlock Holmes, and one for American television, with Sammy Davis Jr. He's also made westerns, avant-garde movies in black and white, and "The Wicker Man," with Anthony Shaffer, author of " Sleuth."
Yet the man has a way of cocking his head, raising his left eyebrow, and looking at you sideways that's so Dracula-like, I automatically checked that he hadn't grown fangs. But who ever heard of a vampire so fond of mirrors? He checks his hair, his profile, his tie, his nails.
The actor, who was born in London's chic Belgravia, tells me, with great satisfaction, that twenty years ago, when he began his movie career, he was universally discouraged. England then made movies only for English audiences, and he didn't look English enough. He also, although he is the son of a professional soldier, was thought not to look military enough, and England made mostly military movies. Worst of all, he was much too tall. He could never get even feature or supporting parts, because he would have dwarfed all the leading men of the day: Kenneth More, Michael Wilding, Jon Mills, Jack Hawkins: He recalls with relish always having to play a sailor, swabbing the decks, who couldn't be allowed to stand up next to Jon Mills, playing an admiral. He now refers to these men as domestic stars, sneering slightly; they now are all retired, or playing character parts.
While he himself had just gotten back from France, where he was wined and dined by cineastes for a full week, his voice was hoarse from it all, and Vadim, Lelouche, Chabrol, Truffaut, Goddard, every single well-known French filmmaker, asked to make a picture with him. How the mighty had fallen, and he, thanks to Dracula, had risen. He was, then, about to play the villain in the next James Bond "Man with the Golden Gun."
Christopher Lee has talked for a solid hour; now he rises to go. A tiger-striped tomcat wanders into the lobby, begging for scraps; Lee, transparently acting upon a bright idea he's just gotten, calls the cat and feeds it the remains of my dry ham sandwich. It's Pyewacket, he says, his familiar (check your witchcraft lore, you unbelievers). It's also a real unconvincing stunt: wanna bet the actor doesn't much care for cats?
It was then on to Brighton, a famous 18th century seaside city, to see Peter Cushing. The British Film Institute was presenting him: he was, all in one night, doing radio and television tapings and a press conference, then facing the general public. He was enduing this kind of evening because he's got a movie opening soon, and a movie's stars must publicize it; yet he was recently widowed, after 30 years of happy marriage, and preferred not to leave his seaside cottage if he wasn't working.
Cushing, who was raised largely in the south London suburbs was an experienced, but not particularly well-known actor when Hammer cast him as Frankenstein: the picture made $4 million in 1970's dollars. As I've previously mentioned, he then played Von Helsing to Lee's Dracula, and that one made $5 million. He's since starred in 50 movies, most of them in the horror genre, including six more Frankensteins and four more Draculas.
He's now, at near 60, almost elderly looking, slight of build, and quite short enough to be dwarfed by Lee. He's got parchment skin, piercing blue eyes, picturesque high cheekbones, and he's wearing the gold watch and chain he's worn in all these films: a gift from his "beloved late wife, " he said.
He pulls on a single white glove every time he smokes, but, he says "it's nothing very sinister." He's a pack a day man, never tried to give it up, "especially not now," and usually plays characters who existed long before cigarettes did. The nicotine stains on his hands bothered him, he tried every which way to get them off, then he borrowed the idea of gloves-he now rotates 14 pair-from the Baron von Frankenstein.
Frankenstein, he says, is "an idealist gone wrong, a man with a thirst for knowledge, interested in the workings of the human body. You could almost say he was a superior mechanic, who didn't care where he got his spare parts." He says he "hopes Hammer has scripts ready for Draculas and Frankensteins I can play in a wheel chair - I'll give those roles up only over my dead body." Cushing adds he just loves to work, "particularly now," and "particularly in the horror genre, which gives so many people so much pleasure….I feel I was so lucky to get that first chance 16 years ago." He says he never worries about being stereotyped, he's played many roles, really.
Cushing seems a shy private person, somewhat fussy, almost professorial, wrapped in his own problems: he fends off reporters with canned words he's obviously used before. He prefers to call his films "fantasies;' he says "audiences cannot identify with our characters-they know they'll never pass Dracula in the street. The Godfather is a horror film, what happens in it could and did take place, and Clockwork Orange, which glorifies brutality." He reminisces about his efforts to start his acting career in the many repertory companies that dot England: he sent out many, many letters. All as "Peter Ing;" he'd dropped the first syllable of his surname in an effort to hide his activities from his parents, who did not wish him to take up acting. He received many, many "thanks but no thanks " letters, all with no explanation, until at last one came: "we regret that our repertory gives us very few parts for Oriental actors." Ah so.
He continued to think back: "Did you know, " he continued, " that I began my film career in Hollywood? I played Louis Hayward's identical twin brother in "The Man in the Iron Mask." I never appeared onscreen, I was used during filming to give him somebody to bounce off. Oddly enough, the director of that film, James Whale, was the greatest horror director of the 30's: he did the original Frankenstein, and Dracula. It must have been an omen."
When queried as to the popularity of Hammer horror films, the actor theorizes, "they offer a very good excuse to put an arm around your girl." And, modestly, "It's like buying a box of chocolates, when you get your usual, you know all your favorites will be there. In the horror film, fortunately enough for me, the favorites are Christopher Lee and myself."
TV cameras are now waiting for him outside, in a garbage-strewn lot next to the theater. It's chilly, and Cushing shivers as he carefully kneels and sets fire to a stuntman known as the Human Torch. "I wish you to know, " Cushing says, that I get no sadistic pleasure from this-I'm doing it because I was asked." Almost before the actor was back on his feet, the stuntman had beaten the flames out. And, as with Lee's tiger-striped familiar, I've seen more convincing stunts. But then, this stunt was surely never Cushing's idea.
The Countess Dracula, according to legend, is 600 years old, and needs the blood of young virgins to keep herself youthful, beautiful, and, ultimately, alive. But Ingrid Pitt, who plays her, proved to be thirtyish, quite beautiful , and extremely lively when I met her in the grandeur of the lobby of the May Fair Hotel, that famous mecca for well-heeled Americans.
Pitt was just in from Rome for a week when we met-she's filming with Fellini. Needed, she said, to look over her house, in the pleasant West London suburb of Twickenham. She speaks seven languages, she says: her biography's a press agent's dream, born November 21, 1937, in Poland; the child of refugees, raised all over Europe. She speaks English with traces of her native Polish accent: she sounds slightly guttural, foreign, perfect for the seductive Countess Dracula. She's dressed perfectly for Countess Dracula, too, in a spectacular tiger skin printed fur coat, matching Cossack-style hat. Her blue eyes, high cheekbones , slightly sallow skin and dark hair don't hurt, either.
To explain the popularity of her films, Pitt reached for the roller coaster theory: it's such fun to be scared half to death when you know you're safe, and says she enjoys making the Countess Dracula films. That they're unusually, if you'll forgive me, meaty roles for an actress. Her only criticism of the movies is that they're not bloody enough to be really convincing, because the blood is, she says, supposed to be the point of the whole thing.
Many people think the Countess Dracula movies have male backlash overtones: that this really aggressive woman must be punished for her sexuality, and point out that the process of driving that stake through her heart sometimes echoes the process of rape. Others think the movies have lesbian undertones, and that's as may be, but Ingrid Pitt seems to have none. And after a two hour chat, she'd plain worn me out: I don't have access, myself, to whatever the secret of her vitality is, though I do surely doubt it's the blood of young virgins. Whatever, a Bloody Mary or two were going to have to do for me, and I gratefully retreated to the hotel bar.
Terence Fisher, who was born in Maida Vale, London, directed many of the best-known Hammer horror films: he has been called the Master of the Macabre. He is a pleasant, grandfatherly man, who lives not far from Twickenham, in the pleasant suburb of Strawberry Hill. In a big, pleasant old house, with a hanging staircase, Japanese prints on the walls, bronze doodads, lots of flowers, and an open fire in the living room. His wife, who was just getting over the flu when I went to see them, was a pleasant, grandmotherly, white-haired Scotswoman wearing a bright pink cardigan.
Fisher began his film career at England's legendary Shepherds Bush studios as a clapper boy, "the oldest in the business," he now says, and climbed the ladder from there. He made his first film for Hammer in 1951; in '56 came the landmark Frankenstein, in '58 the landmark Dracula, then many more of the same. Until 1969, when back to back accidents laid him up for the better part of three years. Now, bright-eyed still, and almost 70, he's thankful to be back in the studio, and just completed his first film since the accidents: "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell;" he and his wife have just been invited to that same French horror film festival.
The "Master of the Macabre" believes the movies are popular, because " they represent the struggle of good against evil, with the clear implication good will win, if not immediately, then eventually. They are the descendents of medieval morality plays, put in such a way as to be acceptable to modern audiences. Dracula contaminates others with his evil, until he, and they, are symbolically released by the stake driven through the heart. Frankenstein thinks the end justifies the means, he's almost Faustian. His idealism has been got hold of by evil, he wants to do better than God, which, by definition, is impossible."
Talking about impossible, serious film criticism always mentions the difficulty of filming fantasy, which Fisher's films must be considered, and postulates that it's almost impossible to film fantasy in color. Which all Hammer films are. So how does he give them their air of reality? Fisher said he doesn't know, that he worked emotionally, and intuitively, using his own personal responses. That he tries to maintain his belief in a movie while working on it, and insists his actors do, too, no matter how weak the script. He wants to force his audience, too, to maintain their belief in the movie, while it lasts; he never gives them easy laughs, or "it's only a movie" outs, if he can help it.
Hammer is particularly fond of period, or gothic horrors, set somewhere in Ruritania, sometime in the last century: how does he manage to give them any reality? By paying careful attention to what he calls the surround, setting each character in its social, political, and economic relationship to each other.
Fisher is not particularly fond of period pieces himself: he thinks "Rosemary's Baby" was a masterpiece and would like to do more contemporary work. But not by "trying to drag Dracula in from the last century," as Hammer tried to do in several films,made with other directors, while he was laid up. Well, a man who's been laid up for three years must have a few bills on his mind, though he doesn't quite say so, and Hammer is not ready to give up Dracula; they'd sooner give up modern times.
He and his wife seem two remarkably pleasant people, they've kept the sherry coming, and we've spent an afternoon happily skirting questions of politics, ethics, religion and economics, but it finally really is time to go. Fisher apologizes several times for hating to drive and not having a car, so that he cannot drive to the railroad station. Then he apologizes because his twice-broken legs will not allow him to do the gentlemanly thing, and walk me there, though it's not far.
However, the director walks with me a ways, and sets me en route. He urges me to see the screening of his newest: the title is horrible, he says, but he didn't pick it, and what can you do? But the movie, he thinks, is his best-ever, and he's had three years to think about it. Meanwhile, two young girls walking a Dalmatian just across the street sing out, "Good evening, Mr. Fisher, how are you tonight?"
Roy Skeggs, then the new Executive Producer at Hammer, had a heavy cold the day I saw him at Elstree, the suburban North London studio Hammer then shared with EMI-MGM. Hammer hadn't always had its studio at Elstree: its earlier films were made at "Bray Studios." That was just a big old house they'd bought on the Thames, in their favorite south-western suburban London area, and it must be the best-documented house in the world: they filmed every scene either within it, or in its grounds. Couldn't afford original scripts, either, so they filmed used radio scripts. Then they decided to remake Dracula and Frankenstein in color: the stories were, after all, in the public domain. It seemed a nutty idea at first, and Hammer had trouble getting American distribution for the films. But as we all know, they were soon crying all the way to the box office.
So, when I went to see Skeggs, Hammer was sharing studios with EMI-MGM, who were distributing their movies; they were boasting of having made 140 features. Of that number, only seven had not made back their costs, a record few other studios could match. They had made their name synonymous with horror, though they'd made more films outside the genre than within. And they planned to continue as they had begun.
We had tea in his pleasant, but not overly luxurious office-green carpeted, plants, lots of wicker, a drinks cabinet, and we continued to chat. Skeggs defined the Hammer philosophy as: watch the budget, don't go into overtime, make popular movies, and make money. He was then near 40, and like many other top people in entertainment then and now, he got into the business as an accountant. Yet, quite in line with many other movie moguls then, at least, Skeggs admitted Hammer had never done any market research. Box office take on their last picture's good enough for them.
And, said Skeggs, the box office verdict was in. They'd tried adding sex, nudity, violence and homosexuality, not to mention 20th century settings, to their product, in pursuit of greater profit. Those pictures had done okay at the box office, but had been no great barnburners. So Hammer would stick to the traditional gothic period film that Skeggs said he himself preferred.
Hammer generally started a picture with the title. (In the bad old days, they'd generally started with a title and posters, and sold the film before they'd filmed it). But now they were more respectable and responsible, and made their films first.
Skeggs, the director and the writer collaborated every step of the way on the script: when they began, they had a clear idea of where they wanted to end. He theorized that people liked the movies because they liked them. He was not at all concerned with the artistic problems of making fantasy in color. Color is commercial; he wouldn't dream of black and white. How did the films get that Hammer look? Weep, all you followers of the auteur school of thought. Nobody at the studio had ever thought about it. They just follow company rules: keep one eye firmly on the box office, and don't break up a winning team.
A week later, cutting of "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell " was done, and it was back out to see the screening: back to Elstree, that confusion of one-way streets, reserved parking places, cavernous sound stages and carpenters' shops, and Kafka-esque corridors. Peter Cushing was at his most sinister in the film, dressed entirely in black, even to his gloves, that he never took off. But he wore his watch and chain as well, and it was easy to speculate that the all-black was actually his mourning. Cushing was sitting a few seats away; he was polite as ever, thanked all the techs, mentioned that the French had just given him an award for services to the horror genre, and took himself home.
The French, they do love their genre movies, don't they? Then again, why wouldn't they? We sure do.
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