Growing up in the 70’s, one name in horror riveted me to the chair and relentlessly fed me steady doses of terror on film. This article lays to bare the very best that British horror studio Hammer Film Productions ever released, so says Malevolent Dark!
Hammer Film Productions produced some of the best vampire and Frankenstein movies ever. They gained momentum and synergy by repeatedly leveraging proven horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Hammer defined the role of the Scream Queen and established some of the most memorable in cinema history. Hammer established British horror as the defacto leader in the 60’s and 70’s. All of these films all have the familiar Hammer horror patina; the look, feel and color that hangs on their films like cheap cologne.
Away we go!
5. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Depending on who one asks, The Devil Rides Out is considered by many to be the finest Hammer horror films directed by Terrance Fisher. Terrance Fisher shows up on this list three times, so that clearly constitutes a very strong compliment. Hammer adapted this film from the written work of Dennis Wheatley, “The Devil Rides Out“. Wheatley became famous as a prolific contributor to British horror literature. Many of his novels focus on the black arts and the occult. I disagree that this is this is Fisher’s finest Hammer horror work, but suitably, it ranks high in conversation.
The Devil Rides out introduces the character of Nicholas, Duc de Richleau, played by Christopher Lee. Duc de Richleau investigates the activities of a friends son named Simon. Duc de Richlieau quickly deduces that Simon is involved in the occult. The situations quickly spirals into a direct confrontation with witchcraft and the Satanic followers of a mysterious man named Mocata.
The Devil Rides out enjoys another top-notch performance by Christopher Lee. The role allows Lee to explore much more nuance than previous roles as Dracula. His character is progenitor of characters like Constantine from “Hellblazer”. Charles Gray also puts on an outstanding performance as Mocata, the leader of the Satanic cult. Grey has a natural ability to cast menace simply through his piercing blue eyes and chiseled chin. He later exercises these qualities as the Bond Villain, Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever.
The movies Satanic imagery excels. Graphically, The Devil Rides Out literally goes for the throat gepicting a satanic sacrifice. For the time, this explicit reference to animal sacrifice was not very prevalent. The iconic depiction of The Goat of Mendes foregoes the man in a red cape and ditches the pitchfork in favor of more detailed recreation of the Sigil of Baphomet. Musician, Glenn Danzig would later heavily use this image to promote his band in the 90’s.
The Devil Rides Out, while landing at five on this list, is a fantastic movie released at a pivotal point in British horror history. The gas had run out on recycling old tropes left over from Universal Studios monsters. This film propelled the Hammer horror catalog into new territory.
4. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
On thing that Hammer horror films excel at is breaking the proverbial mold when it comes to classic tales. In Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, Terence Fisher takes advantage of the groundwork that he laid with Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Because the Monster does not constitute the centerpiece of the narrative, this film is not beholden to another yarn about a raging monster on the loose. This film provides a backdrop to further explores the depraved mind of Victor Frankenstein. Likewise, it provides another canvas for Peter Cushing to paint his flagship character to disgusting new depths.
There is no monster in the film, just a former partner of Frankenstein, Dr. Fredrick Brandt, played by George Pravda. I an attempt to retain Brandt’s brilliance after a heart attack, Frankenstein transplants the brain of Brandt into the head of another man. The drama revolves around the cruel deception by doctor Frankenstein and the unraveling of the truth. And, the corollary is that Frankenstein corrupts everything he touches. Truly, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed presents a new Hammer horror tale woven from the fabric of Mary Shelley’s epic novel.
Freddie Jones plays the recipient of the transplant, professor Richter. Much of the drama surrounds his unwelcome attempts to reconnect with the wife that he loves. Of course, she will have nothing to do with him as his mind wears another mans face. Ultimately, he plots his revenge on Frankenstein.
Frankenstein Must be Destroyed also contains the controversial scene where Victor Frankenstein rapes, Anna Spengler, played by the beautiful Veronica Carlson of Hammer Films fame. Rumor has it that Carlson, Cushing and Fisher argued with the Hammer Films producers to leave the scene out. The scene was not seen as essential for British horror fans, but added to appease the American audience. In this case the producers were right. This exemplifies the perverse depths that Frankenstein is willing to go to feed his megalomania.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed demonstrates just how deep the concepts in Mary Shelley’s story can go. For those have read the novel, Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster. Cushing plays that monster as diabolical as they come. Hammer Films was one of the first studios to really expand on that aspect of the mythology. This film finds its greatness in its willingness to be unique.
3. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)
Another example of non-standard Hammer Films monster fare, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter gives a new look to tired Van Helsing archetype. Kronos, played by Horst Jansen, is a dashing swashbuckler, quick with his tongue and his sword. Not only does he fight vampires, but he defends his honor against brigands and bar fighters. Also, he proves to be quite a cocksman by putting serious moves on Caroline Munro, high-priestess of Hammer horror queens (so says Malevolent Dark).
The genius of this film incorporates scenes and plots devices from the spaghetti westerns that were popular at the time. When coupled with the vampire trappings, the result feels like a prototype for what the Blade series would become. Rather than recycle another tired Dracula tale, Hammer Films went for something completely unique.
Additionally, this film expanded the vampire lore by explaining that there are many species of vampire. Likewise, there are many different ways of dispatching them. In a disturbing yet somewhat comedic scene, Kronos and his partner test different methods of killing on Kronos’ recently turned friend, Marcus, to figure out which species of vampire they are dealing with. It all feels very fresh.
These vampires depart from the standard blood sucking master of the night. These vampires have neither the taste for blood nor the fear of a stake in the heart. They do not drain the victim of their blood, but rather their youth. This is a plot device that would be recycled by Tobe Hooper in 1985’s Hammer films tribute, Life Force. Directed by Brian Clemens, Captain Kronos is classic Hammer Horror.
Again, Hammer breaks it own mold to create a unique take on the vampire genre. I find it thoroughly entertaining for all of my favorite Hammer reasons.
2. Vampire Circus (1972)
Hammer Film Productions gained notoriety by making Dracula movies, but their best vampire movies fall outside of that mythology. This story involves a small European town, quarantined due to a local plague. A small roaming circus comes to town to entertain them, but the circus hides a very dark secret. The circus is a band of roving vampires that have come to avenge the death of their master, Count Mittenhouse 15 years prior.
Directed by Robert Young, Vampire Circus adds an element of wonder to tired old Dracula tropes. In addition to the standard vampire powers, each circus act has another talent. Some transmute into panthers. Others are half-vampire and half-tiger. David Prowse makes an appearance as the vampire strong-man. Vampire Circus has a great story and revels in all of the British horror and sex appeal that makes these films wonderful.
Again, much of the success of this film lies in its imagery. Vampire Circus treats the vampires as extremely alluring but equally evil creatures. In many cases, they seduce the townspeople to their doom. While not overly gory, Vampire Circus has its moments. In one simple effect, a shower of crimson splatters the pristine greenery of the forest, nothing more nothing less. It proves a very effective use of a simple pint of stage blood. The score of this film does not get enough credit as it is seamlessly interwoven into the action and subtly provocative.
Had I not taken historical significance into account, Vampire Circus may very well have topped this list of top 5 Hammer horror films.
1. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
This is the film that built the house of Hammer Films.
This film proved to the archetype for Hammer Films to follow. This film set several precedents. The Curse of Frankenstein firmly establishes Peter Cushing as the diabolical Dr. Victor Frankenstein. This is a role that Cushing will repeat with zeal over several films. It may be the most quintessential character in all of British horror. What director Terence Fisher anchors the entire movie around the depravity of Frankenstein’s character. The Monster becomes a rather gruesome side-topic. That is not to say that the Monster is not fantastic. The Monster absolutely is fantastic.
One of the keys to creating a great Frankenstein’s Monster is the ability to juxtapose the Monster’s capability for destruction with its ability to demand, and deserve, sympathy. Terence Fisher astounds with his ability to glean that from from the source material and execute so flawlessly against Shelley’s original vision.
This film Marks Christopher Lee’s only performance as Frankenstein’s Monster. The portrayal falls much more in-line with that of the original Mary Shelley novel. Lee plays the role much more nimbly and capable than Lon Chaney Jr. did. Additionally, the monster is cunning and manipulative. Make up artist Phil Leakey created a horrendous version of Frankenstein that amazingly still elicits sympathy from the audience. To date, this stands as the best rendition of the Monster ever.
The historical significance of this film can not be overstated. Astonishingly brilliant for 1957, this film set in motion the blueprint for many of our favorite British horror films. It set the precedent that Hammer Films would successfully repeat over and over again. Peter Cushing’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein is one for the age. The Curse of Frankenstein stands atop of the list of Malevolent Dark’s Top 5 Hammer Horror Films.
But wait, there’s more
When I set out on this endeavor to enumerate the best Hammer Films, it turned out to be a more emotional process than I anticipated. This British horror factory created so many wonderful films. I wanted to make a Top 10 list, but quickly came to the conclusion that the article would either be to long, or the commentary on each film too brief. Decisions were made, but not made lightly. The following is a list of other essential Hammer Films in no specific order.
– Plague of the Zombies
Haitian black magic and the living dead!
– The Brides of Dracula
More and Cushing and lovely Hammer Films lady vampires!
– The Curse of the Werewolf
Oliver Reed, do I need to say more?
– The Reptile
One of the more clever and iconic monsters in British horror history!
– Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
Vampires and Kung-Fu, yes please!