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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Can Hammer Films come back from the grave?

For me, the mere mention of Hammer Films evokes delightful images of fanged mouths, bloodshot eyes and overflowing bustiers...all in shockingly gorgeous color. When I was a kid, the name Hammer was synonymous with red, red blood.

Let me explain. In the 60s, the Universal Shock Theater package was bringing Universal classics to television for horror kids like me all over the country, but they were often creaky and slow-moving black and white movies. Worse yet, Universal stuck a bunch of Z-grade mysteries into the syndication package, so after getting my parents' permission to stay up until midnight to see Creature Feature on channel 28, Murders in the Blue Room would be playing. Crap! Nevertheless, I was determined to stay awake to retrieve my hard-earned prize, but my eyelids would start to droop as the boring B-picture unspooled and the next thing I'd remember is waking up in my own bed. How did that happen?

Hammer was a different story altogether. Just hearing the first few notes of James Bernard's themes that echoed the titles of the films he scored ("Drac-u-la!") and seeing the overexposed day-for-night scenes of the English countryside always set me up for something special: vampires, gorgons, werewolves...okay, the studio also made some mummy movies, but they didn't provide the same visceral fun.

Sadly, fangs and breasts weren't enough to keep American audiences interested in the Hammer product as we entered the "summer of love" and the Vietnam war era during which George Romero released his primal scream in the form of Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Wes Craven took it even further with Last House on the Left (1972).

Hammer tried its best to stay relevant, moving into more sexually explicit territory (1970's The Vampire Lovers) and modern settings (Dracula A.D. 1972), but it came off like your grampa making his moves on the dance floor to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. By 1980, the studio that dripped blood was virtually no more.

As the years went by, there was frequent talk in the fanzines about a Hammer resurrection. I loved the idea, but what could the studio do to make itself relevant in the gory, DUI home video generation of the 80s and 90s?

I was smitten by the 2008 Norwegian vampire film Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson, so when it was announced that an American remake would be written and helmed by Cloverfield's Matt Reeves under the Hammer banner, I became a big supporter, hoping that it would bring the company back from its moribund status.

But it was a terrible bomb.

Let Me In is a damn good remake. Reeves kept much of the story intact, but he moved the adults into the background, with the exception of Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas as the town sheriff, a new character. Aside from a bit of rather silly Gollum-like GCI, it is an excellent revisualization of the original. At least it helped to boost the careers of its wonderful young stars, Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Hugo).

Wake Wood was next for Hammer, starring Aiden Gillen, who'd been in the Channel 4 version of Queer as Folk and HBO's The Wire. It got a bit of theatrical exposure, thanks to Dark Sky Films, Dread Central and Bloody Disgusting, at my beloved New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Reminiscent of The Wicker Man, it also foreshadowed the new Hammer's biggest hit to come...

The studio rounded up two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and its original superstar, Christopher Lee, for The Resident, a suspense thriller about a young doctor (Swank) who rents a too-good-to-be-true apartment in Brooklyn, only to discover that her landlord (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has set up an elaborate A/V system to spy on her.

Instead of playing out like a modern Repulsion or The Tenant, which it was set up for, the film squanders its promising premise and just runs around in circles. It was released direct-to-DVD in the United States, which is the way I saw it...and I was simultaneously frustrated and bored to tears.

Last week I saw The Woman in Black at an actual movie theater! Thanks to the dual powerhouses of Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe in the starring role and a popular book and long-running play as its source material, it was the biggest Hammer film opener of all time in the U.K. and has managed to hang on for more than a month in the States, which is a big deal these days. Determinedly old-fashioned, this film manages to dredge up the old Hammer memories better than any of its other new releases.

This is a beautiful film. With exteriors shot in Sussex, North Hampshire and Yorkshire, it just screams local color. Radcliffe does well in his role as the solemn protagonist Arthur Kipps.

Perhaps it suffers from too many pop-up scares accompanied by jarring musical crescendos and moments that stretch credulity, but it redeems itself with a nice, nihilistic ending. And it made me happy to think that Hammer may have a chance after all.

With nostalgia being so popular, I think the time has come for Hammer to go full-circle and remake some of the classics from its prime. Vampire Circus in 3D? Why not? But who could fill Christopher Lee's shoes as Dracula?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand. As a youngster seeing the 'classic' Hammer films, I imagined a great studio where the most exciting and scary things took place. When as an adult, I learned that the company was actually based in an old, creaky mansion, I was delighted!

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