Horror was also a popular genre in the 1950s English cinema. Hammer Films began in 1934 as a small studio specializing in commercial genre movies, then moved into a series of taut noir films in the early 1950s, many with American actors. But in the late 1950s, Hammer found a winning new formula with horror and science fiction. This began when Hammer happened to adapt Nigel Kneale’s popular BBC television series “The Quater-mass Experiment” (1953) to the screen as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), directed by Val Guest. The X in Xperiment was to capitalize on the fact that the British Board of Film Censors routinely gave an X, or “Adults Only,” certificate to horror and science fiction films of the period, and thus the film had something of a forbidden air to it before it was ever released.
The film was a massive success, and Hammer decided to concentrate entirely on graphic horror and science fiction films, after a poll discovered that audiences liked the horror aspect of The Quatermass Xperiment the most.
Hammer obligingly began creating a series of Gothic films that revitalized the genre, moribund since 1948, with generous doses of violence, sex, and bloodshed, all photographed in ravishing color. The Hammer look included lush cinematography, a tendency toward fluid camerawork, beautifully crafted period sets, and romantically suggestive clothing. Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was the first pure horror film out of the studio’s gate; it became an overnight sensation in both England and the United States, and made stars of Christopher Lee (as the Creature) and Peter Cushing (as Baron Victor Frankenstein). Universal Pictures, fearful of losing their franchise on movie monsters, initially opposed The Curse of Frankenstein, claiming that it infringed on their copyright for the character. Hammer responded that since their film was based on Mary Shelley’s novel, which was in the public domain, they could do as they pleased. Despite the threat of a lawsuit Hammer pressed ahead, and when the film was a hit, Universal promptly struck a deal with Hammer giving them the rights to all their classic monsters. Hammer was transformed overnight from a small “B” production company into one of the most successful film studios in English history.
Fisher’s Dracula (a k a Horror ofDracula in the United States) followed in 1958 and was an even bigger success both commercially and critically, with Christopher Lee as the bloodthirsty Count and Peter Cushing as his nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. With that, Hammer began a seemingly endless cycle of horror and suspense films, relying on Fisher’s considerable talent to create such
of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Stranglers of Bombay (1960), The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Hammer continued the genre into the 1960s with other directors as well: The Maniac (Michael Carreras, 1963), Paranoiac (Freddie Francis, 1962), The Kiss of the Vampire (Don Sharp, 1962), and many others. Indeed, so successful was Hammer as a commercial proposition that the studio was eventually given the Queen’s Award to Industry in April 1968 for their outstanding success in conquering overseas markets and successfully competing with Hollywood.