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14 March 2011

Hammer's Women In Peril

Taste Of Fear

Marking the UK release of Hammer’s new thriller The Resident, film historian Robert J.E. Simpson takes a look back at the company’s long association with the genre…

At first glance The Resident may seem to be an unusual fit for the Hammer production slate – the house of Hammer is perhaps best known for its hugely influential Gothic horror productions, something which Beyond The Rave, Let Me In, Wake Wood and The Woman In Black all fit into. But at various stages in the history of Hammer, thrillers have provided an alternative backbone and staple diet.

Radio Thrills

The earliest examples of Hammer thrillers were at the tail end of the 1940s, when the studio embarked upon a successful series of adaptations of popular BBC radio serials. Laced with Gothic embellishments, Meet Simon Cherry, The Man In Black, Death In High Heels and The Dark Light to name but a few, were all mystery fare, usually centred around some elaborate crime. The formula continued to be exploited during the 1950s following Hammer/Exclusive’s co-production deal with American producer Robert L. Lippert resulting in a wave of British noir films including The House Across The Lake, The Glass Cage, Murder By Proxy and Whispering Smith Hits London.

The 50s noir pictures offered rich chiaroscuro photography, fiendish larceny, an abundant supply of adultery and sexual intrigue, and low-rent American stars like Dane Clark and Cesar Romero, who guaranteed some sort of international box-office draw in an otherwise very British set-up. Lippert funded the fee for the US stars in exchange for US distribution while Hammer/Exclusive took care of the rest.

Following the success of The Curse Of Frankenstein, Gothic horrors took centre stage as Hammer’s core product, at least until the company took notice of the success of another low-budget shocker released through Universal (who had handled distribution duties for Dracula and Kiss Of The Vampire amongst others) – Psycho.

Psycho and beyond

Psycho was the direct result of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s work on his television series. Having taken note of the success of the comparatively low-budget films of American International and Hammer, Hitchcock wondered whether he could produce a film under the same conditions and budget as a television episode. The result, a black and white shocker (which Hitchcock maintained was a black comedy) became one of his most profitable films, receiving box office of $16 million on the initial 1960 run, about 20 times the budget of $800,000.

Evidently someone at Hammer was paying attention. Tony Hinds would come to cite the horror of Psycho in his appeals to the British film censors during disputes, only to be told by censor John Trevelyan that Hammer was simply not Hitchcock.

It would be scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster that initiated the group of films often labelled as ‘mini-Hitchcocks’. Beginning with Taste Of Fear, Hammer would produce a series of films (many written by Sangster) which very clearly drew their influence (and much of their plotting) from Hitchcock’s thrillers.

As Sangster explained in his memoir Inside Hammer (Reynolds and Hearn, 2001):

“It marked a temporary shift by Hammer out of the Gothics and into what I called the ‘psycho’ type movies. I called them that because the Hitchcock movie Psycho was the main cause of my change of direction. That, and Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, as fine a piece of fright movie-making as I’d ever seen up to then […] I saw both these movies within a few days of each other and, like the guy in A Chorus Line, I figured ‘I can do that.’ So I set to work and four weeks later out came the first draft of Taste Of Fear.”

Taste Of Fear (aka Scream Of Fear) is perhaps one of the finest Hammer films of the period. Directed by Seth Holt in black and white, it feels like something Hitchcock might have produced. A wheelchair-bound girl (Susan Strasberg) comes home to see her ailing father, only to be greeted by her step-mother and her chauffeur. Her father is seemingly away, but the fragile young girl is continuously haunted by his mysteriously-appearing corpse, and is quickly convinced that her step-mother is plotting to kill her.

Packed with twists and turns that keep the audience on tenterhooks, Taste Of Fear was successful enough for Hammer to churn-out a bunch more over the next few years, all shot in black and white: Maniac (which offers the delightful image of a menacing figure sporting an oxyacetylene blowtorch), Paranoiac, Hysteria, Nightmare, Fanatic (perhaps the only thriller of the period in colour, and featuring the legendary Tallulah Bankhead in her last screen role, and a very young Donald Sutherland in support) and The Nanny.

Taste also took a leaf out of Hitchcock’s notebook in its approach to advertising. Hitchcock’s UK poster campaign for Psycho showed only a picture of the maestro himself and instructions that viewers would not be let in to the theatres once the performance had started. Hammer meanwhile built an elaborate campaign based around a single image (well, two or three variations of the shot) of Susan Strasberg in mid-scream with the tag-lines built around the essence of ‘this is positively the only image we are allowed to show you from the film’.

As in The Resident, Christopher Lee makes an appearance in Taste and has often cited it as one of his favourite film roles. Already his appearances as screen villains for the company (Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Creature) had coded his appearance for audiences, and it’s hard not to see him as one of the bad guys – but director Holt uses this to his full advantage in Taste.

Women In Terror

The mini-Hitchcocks (mini only in the sense that Hammer spent a lot less than $800,000 per film) introduced the central element of women in peril as part of the Hammer thriller formula, and would return to this again in the 1970s with a thriller double-bill. Sangster would write, produce and direct Fear In The Night, a shocker which places Judy Geeson as the simpering wife of new schoolmaster Ralph Bates in an out-of-the-way village. Joan  Collins and Peter Cushing provide equally menacing support. From the opening pan across the school playing fields to the legs of a body hanging from a tree the film presents itself as terror-filled.

The double bill went out under the advertising tagline ‘Women In Terror’ and was supported by Straight On Till Morning, a truly uneasy and experimental film written by John Peacock and directed by Peter Collinson. Rita Tushingham plays a woman who moves to London and falls in love with Peter (Shane Briant), only to find herself increasingly psychologically tortured by him after she falls pregnant. Borrowing elements from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Hammer not only manages to present a deeply unsettling portrayal of a sadistic relationship, but introduce real menace into a much-loved children’s tale.

For the rest of the 1970s Hammer returned to reliable Gothic horror and TV comedy adaptations, returning to thrillers and to Hitchcock himself for 1979’s ill-fated The Lady Vanishes. The script itself borrows heavily from Hitchcock’s original, with Angela Lansbury and Cybil Shepherd providing the dual women in terror. Hammer fans have often been quick to dismiss The Lady Vanishes, but there is much to enjoy: a witty and thrilling script, and a veritable assortment of brilliant character performances.

The 1983 television series Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense would juxtapose Gothic shockers with thrillers, Czech Mate for example once again presenting us with the woman in terror scenario as Susan George plays a woman who visits Prague to re-kindle her relationship with her ex-husband (Patrick Mower) only to find herself the victim of an elaborate identity theft.

So as Hammer returned to production some 25 years later, it was perhaps little surprise that they honed-in on another ‘Woman In Terror’ story in the shape of The Resident. Hilary Swank portrays a young woman who finds herself the unwitting victim in an isolated apartment owned by a bearded Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his elderly grandfather (Christopher Lee). What lies within the walls of this New York apartment block is not for the faint-hearted. You never know who is watching…

Robert Simpson is a film historian and archivist, currently researching the early history of Hammer and Exclusive Films for a PhD at Trinity College Dublin.

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