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Hammer Horror – A House in the Country

Oakley Court, Berkshire.

In the movies, few brand names are as instantly recognised or as redolent of a certain genre of filmmaking as that of Hammer. What Disney is to animation, Hammer is to English Gothic.

The ‘Hammer’ moniker actually comes from ‘Hammersmith’ but via a circuitous route. It’s all thanks to a man named William Hinds (William Hammer to his audience), a businessman who in the early years of the 20th century ran a chain of shops.

But Hinds had a hobby – the music hall. With a mate, he worked on an act called ‘Hammer and Smith’ but it was never going to provide the success of which Hinds dreamed, so he invested in theatres and soon had a network of venues on the English south coast.

Seeing the future potential in motion pictures, Hinds joined forces with a picture house entrepreneur called Enrique Carreras, and in 1934 they formed a production company for which Hinds revived his name from his music hall days. Hammer Films was born.

Their output in the pre-war years was fitful and rarely made any money. But the fortunes of Carreras and Hind took off in 1949 when they purchased a 17th Century mansion (with a resident ghost called the Blue Lady) in Berkshire called Oakley Court, which – along with the adjacent Down Place – was renamed ‘Bray Studios’ and became the heart of the Hammer empire.

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By this time, the founders’ sons James Carreras and Anthony Hinds (who also wrote many of the scripts under his nom de plume John Elder) had taken over the reins at the studio and recognised that the horror genre could put Hammer on the map.

Carreras and Hinds subsequently acquired the film rights to TV’s The Quatermass Experiment and in 1955 they released the movie version, retitled The Quatermass Xperiment and starring the rugged American actor Brian Donlevy.

The film was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic (it was called The Creeping Unknown in the States) and Hammer suddenly had an international profile.

In 1957 they released The Curse of Frankenstein, a camp shocker with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, followed by Dracula (1958). By 1960 there was no stopping them.

Producing eight features a year, Hammer was the most consistently profitable film company of the time, with films like The Mummy (1959), The Curse Of The Werewolf (1961) and The Damned (1963) which combined motorcycle gangs with radioactive children in Weymouth!

The 1960s belonged to Hammer when inventiveness and revision frequently sidestepped budgetary constraints. Homegrown economics ensured that the same sets and the same actors appeared in many movies (including Ingrid Pitt, who was on-call whenever they needed a sexy female vampire to suck blood and fall out of her negligee).

Dracula’s castle pops up in the Fu Manchu films and Rasputin the Mad Monk, as does Christopher Lee himself in the central roles. Directors like Terence Fisher (who made 28 films for the studio) and Roy Ward Baker churned out suburban vampire thriller after bourgeois Satanist shocker, and the public couldn’t get enough of it.

Hammer gave up Bray in 1968 and relocated to Elstree, but the house and studio continued to do business under a number of landlords.

Although it’s not entirely correct to say that the critical reputation of the Hammer studio was always low, it’s true that until the 1970s, very few people took them seriously.

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Hits like Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) made money, but the glory days of bloodsucking aristocrats and vampire virgin killers were never to be matched.

Hammer limped on until 1979, sustained by diversifying into movie versions of popular but vulgar television comedy such as On The Buses and Love They Neighbour. The last production was a redundant remake of The Lady Vanishes starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd.

When Hammer went into liquidation, Roy Skeggs (who had produced more than 40 films at the studio) was asked back by the receiver to run the company. He bought out the received in 1987 and relocated Hammer Films to Hampden House in Buckinghamshire, shifting production away from horror films towards anthologies and television serials such as the Hammer House of Horror series (1980).

Skeggs also leased the Hammer library of 200 titles to Warner Bros. Valued previously at just £300,000, the library returned greatly enhanced, with Warners having made $5 million on it.

James Carreras was knighted in 1970. He died in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, in June 1990, aged 81. Tony Hinds died on 30 September 2013, aged 91.

Roy Skeggs died in December 2018 at the age of 84.