Fear in film - filmic fear - the horror film. There's a phrase we've all heard a few times, but one I'm not sure any of us really appreciate. What does HORROR mean, anyhow? The American Heritage Dictionary defines 'horror' as: An intense and painful feeling of repugnance and fear; intense dislike; abhorrence. Speaking only for myself, that definition would cover anything from balancing my checkbook to starting a new diet, but I can't say I'm particularly afraid of either - I just don't LIKE them. American Heritage's definition raises the question: if 'horror' is some intense and painful feeling of repugnance and fear, than a 'Horror Film' must then be about such matters, and who the hell pays to watch a couple hours worth of painful feelings, repugnance, and fear?
Well, I'll tell you. Nearly everyone.
We all have fears, and almost all of us have a quiet, perverse desire to brush up with this fear, to touch our fingertips along it's cold surface, to graze it with our hands as you might caress a dead body. This desire has been the stuff of colorful and fantastic literature for centuries, and, in our American Century, this desire has flourished like never before in the film genre we call 'horror'.
The fantastic and splendid list is long: the expressionistic madness of UFA's Dr. Caligari; Murnau's chilling Nosferatu; Lon Chaney's nightmare picture-book of faces; Universal Studio's gothic pantheon of monochrome monsters; the sometimes outlandish yet always engaging Edgar Allen Poe adaptations of Roger Corman; and, last but not least, the little studio that could, Britain's Hammer Films.
The spring of 1957 saw the release of The Curse of Frankenstein, a lurid new look at the Mary Shelley classic, vividly mounted in Technicolor and starring the redoubtable Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his handiwork. Just another monster film, you'd think. But this one was different. Universal's second version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Claude Rains, was the first horror film shot in full color (Lon Chaney's 1920's landmark used only two-tone color), but had so few horrific elements in it as to render the color meaningless. Hammer Films' approach was to use Technicolor to the fullest...A) to bring the gory canvass of the Frankenstein monster to full voice, and B) to make sure they got a lucrative American distribution deal by being the best-looking, most literate horror film any Hollywood studio had yet seen, all produced for the (unheard of sum, by Hollywood standards) of 70,000 pounds.
The Curse of Frankenstein went through the roof, and so did the critics, who called the film horrific. Disgusting. Repugnant. And, yes, Abhorrent! No doubt, these were the same critics who soon called the James Bond films 'sadistic', and still think Eddie Murphy isn't funny and rap music isn't music. They never learn. But Hammer, they learned. Hammer went from being 'the studio in the box', the box being the converted home in England's pastoral Hammersmith called Bray, to being the Hammer House of Horror. Soon, Universal's monsters became Hammer's, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became international stars.
But what made the Hammer Films so different, so new, so rich, and so important? How do stupid little horror films get important in the first place? By making money? The Hammer Films, almost without exception, did so regularly and impressively. (The late Peter Cushing once quipped; "We made our films for less than $100,000, and that included us actors, the sets, and that damned Technicolor processing; how on earth couldn't they turn a profit on us?")
To a much greater and consistent a degree than any other body of horror films before or since, Hammer Films seized upon the wealth of classical dramatic and cultural themes and put them to maximum use (and effect) in such a way that raised the cinematic level of the horror film to new heights that are rarely reached today. This was no mean feat for what the Hammer family would casually and without irony describe as 'tarted-up Saturday matinee fare'.
Was it the Technicolor, or the Panavision (HammerScope! screamed the lobby posters)? Was it the canny used of media-imagined 'sex-kittens', such as the ex-Miss France, who turned up in 1961's The Brides of Dracula, or the then-unknown American model, Raquel Welch, who took us back One Million Years B.C.? Was it Peter Cushing's repertory training, taking Shelley's Victor Frankenstein into unheard-of dramatic proportions, or Christopher Lee's ruthless screen presence that survived many a bad script and amateur director? Or, fellow matinee goers, was it that the way Hammer treated the material?
The horror film is our 20th Century equivalent of the traditional fairy tale, the bedtime story meant to put children in bed, or, rather more to the heart of the matter, keep children in line. You name the fable or fairy tale, the bedtime story or the folk tale that, somehow, somewhere, doesn't have the all-important 'moral of the story', and you've got a fantastic story that isn't much fantastic, one that most assuredly the kids won't like, either.
These kinds of stories have had either cleverly implicit or nakedly explicit determinist tones from day one. Stuart Mill's determinism holds our volitions to be determined by pre-existing circumstances. The social determinism of the fairy tale, and of the essential, classical horror film, is no different. The actions of the story, however lurid, fantastic, and/or colorful, and their inevitable resolutions, all clearly underline some distinct lesson to be learned, some clear message to be heeded, some behavior to be closely followed or strictly avoided. In short, social determinism - hard at work for you, parents, taxpayers, and citizens.
Children aren't cognitive thinkers. They never have been, and they never will be, despite modern day efforts of tragically misguided parents who prefer to treat their child as a functioning friend rather than...their child. They may be a little smarter than we once were, us poor, deprived sods who managed to reach adulthood without the Internet, cable TV, cell phones or text-messaging, but they're still kids, and, if anyone can be successfully directed by a good determinist message, it's a kid. Why should a body of films directed at the young and playful of all ages, the Saturday matinee-goer or late-night, "Creature Features" viewer be any different? We all get that little chill from that quick decision to jump into an open lane in traffic, or to take up a sport better left to anyone other than you, or to hit that ATM for just one more round at the tables.
Likewise, we all get a different chill, perhaps a more rewarding chill and certainly a longer lasting one, by walking into that dark movie theater and plunging ourselves into that intense, abhorrent, and fearsome netherworld of the horror film.
Mr. Marshall McLuhan was more right than anyone imagined: The media is the message. And the most vibrant messenger of the solid determinist call has been the literature of the fantastic. Hammer Films are independent cinema's apotheosis of this message.
Let me quote from Richard Matheson's powerful screenplay, adapted from Dennis Wheatley's downright frightening novel, The Devil Rides Out:
Greene - Hocus-pocus...mumbo-jumbo...black magic...
Richelieu - Do you believe in evil?
Greene - As an idea...
Richelieu - Do you believe in the power of darkness?
Greene - As a superstition...
Richelieu - Now, there you are wrong. The power of darkness is more than just a superstition. It is a living force which can be tapped at any given moment of the night.
I'd have to fall out of my seat if dialogue like that turned up in any indie movie marketed to the under-25 set nowadays. Does it sound a little old-fashioned to you? It does to me, and, by God, I love it. What an elegance of form. What style in that clear moral and ethical sense. And what power. Maybe it's romantic of me to respond to the longing I think I share with millions of others for that lost sense of clarity. Hammer Films used the traditional literary approach to right and wrong, good and evil, and put those messages in simple yet forceful costume melodramas to make a mark that, at the time seemed like good business and a decent living, but, now, thirty years after the studio produced its last feature (another Denis Wheatley adaptation, To the Devil A Daughter), seems a little more like art.
Hammer used all forms of iconography to achieve their ends: from ancient Egyptian burial ceremonies to modern Catholic rites; the sexual gulag of the Victorian era to the nervous meeting of alien cultures in faraway colonial lands; and the legendary storybook myths of macabre Mitteleuropa to the social determinisms of the West, no scenario was left untapped by this small group of British craftsman who knocked out film after film for almost no money for nearly two decades.
Every Hammer Film gave us that ageless drama of a clearly defined evil (person, force, idea) engaged by and (for the most part) defeated by an unambiguous good (person, and so on). Some of the drearily cynical among us would wheeze that such story-telling is, at best, quaint, or, at it's worst, fantasy. Perhaps, if you look at things like that. Let's put our post-modern funk aside for a moment and consider the stark, one thousand fine value of such moral clarity.
Is there no value in presenting, in promoting, and, yes, in determining, in our children AND in ourselves a greater, clearer moral sense, such as those you find so prominently and so vividly in a good horror film, and any Hammer Film you care to name?
"Only those who love without desire shall have power granted them in their darkest hour."
(That's from The Devil Rides Out, too.)
I must say, the last few months of going back and re-watching all of my favorite Hammer Films was a lot of fun. They're every bit as sumptuously produced as I remembered, and quite a bit more sophisticated than I ever recalled. Not so bad in the chills department, either. A lot of directors worked for Hammer, but none of them are so identified with their work at the studio as Terence Fisher, who helmed all the early Hammer classics (plus a few of their very best later entries, such as The Devil Rides Out) and established the 'Hammer look' - MGM dress at one-reeler prices.
Terry Fisher wasn't much for fancy camera angles or showy film school gimmicks - it's a good thing he died in 1975, because the man couldn't get a job directing a school play these days - but he had a way of framing up something. Every Hammer film he did has some scene done in a fair long shot, with a door or window in the background. The only person on Earth who didn't know a monster or something was about to burst through that door or window was the character already in the room. Sometimes, even they knew it. But when that monster came crashing through, WHAM! There it was! I still giggle nervously when Chris Lee's muscular Mummy shambles in to kill Peter Cushing's shotgun-armed archeologist, or when David Prowse (the original guy under Darth Vader's mask and cape), playing Terry Fisher and Hammer's last Frankenstein monster (in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), crashes through an asylum window during a rain storm to kill the asylum director. What a hoot! Want to get your kid to cry themselves into submission? Make them listen to the title music of any Hammer Film. They'll carry every note with them well into their college years. Believe me, I know.
But, let's not forget the long list of fine actors bringing life not just to a couple of musty, one-dimensional roles, but to some equally musty ideas about the whole good and evil thing. That the collected casts of the Hammer catalogue rose above the inherently melodramatic, one-note nature of their roles is one thing; the fact that they did so in such an accomplished manner, with such cinematic gusto, communicating so wide and vital a range of emotions and representative values still impresses an avowed fan like myself.
Where are three-plus dimensional actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee nowadays? People of intelligence and wit who could communicate the full, icy intensity of profound evil (Dracula, Frankenstein) and, later that year, emote the complete essence of virtue and good (Van Helsing, Richelieu). Men who were gentlemen, and effortless ones, at that. Where have they all gone? Men whose dignity, presence, and natural substance made their every performance a rewarding one, appearances in roles we in the cheap seats find easy to snigger at.
Vincent Price, who was a close personal friend of both Cushing and Lee (remarkably, all of whom were born on the same day, though in different years) once remarked to an interviewer that none of them made truly frightening movies. To him, the really frightening things were outside the movie theaters. When the reporter pressed him to name a scene or a movie that scared him, Vincent Price, the abominable Dr. Phibes himself, replied: "Snow White. The evil Queen. Now, she was scary!"
Think about all the determinist moralizing in the great Disney animations - the donkey boys and the whale in Pinocchio; the hunters and the fire in Bambi; the circus handlers in Dumbo; and the rogue's gallery of kiddie-scaring figures in Fantasia...now, that's scary!
The fabulous and valuable success of "Sesame Street" notwithstanding, to the devil with Barney and this nice stuff - bring on the good, scary, determinist children's stories! Hail, Walt Disney! Hail, Hammer!
Let me regale you to one more excerpt. This is an exchange between Peter Cushing's quietly assured archeologist and George Pastell's calculating Egyptian, taken from Jimmy Sangster's taut screenplay of The Mummy:
Banning - I made an extensive study of this so-called "religion". It's based on artificial creeds and beliefs, some of them ludicrous in the extreme.
Ahmed - Did it ever occur to you that, beneath the superficial you've learned about, there could be a great and passionate devotion to this God?
Banning - It occurred to me, but I dismissed it.
Ahmed - You're intolerant, Mr. Banning.
Banning - Not intolerant, just practical.
Ahmed - Intolerant. Because you are unable to experience the greatness of a deity, you dismiss it as of no consequence. But, believe me, to those who worship and serve, he is all powerful.
Banning - But, surely, there can't be people who still have such beliefs.
Ahmed - Now you are talking about something of which you know nothing. You've scratched only the surface, and you know nothing. You assume the right to disturb the ever-lasting peace of the Gods. You pry and meddle with unclean hands and eyes. Profanity, blasphemy, religious desecration - all these you are guilty of. But the powers with which you have meddled do not rest easy. I think you will not go unpunished.
Banning - Punished? By who?
Ahmed - There are certain things for which civilization has no answer. But if you choose to meddle thus, you must be prepared to face the consequences, whatever they are.
Banning - Consequences? That sounds like a threat.
Ahmed - You must excuse me, Mr. Banning. We like to think that our European dress, our liberal education, has buried the past. But, occasionally, one is forced to realize that all this is only a veneer. Thousands of years of traditional belief cannot be dismissed in one generation.
I wouldn't mind a roll of nickels for every phrase in that passage you'll never, ever hear in any movie, horror or otherwise, lurching out of today's dumbed-down, tarted up mainstream Hollywood product. In a segment of one scene in one film, we hear serious references to serious issues that are as relevant today as they were, for the hundreds of years before the film got made. This is the sort of material that used to run like a river through common storytelling for all ages. This is the sort of message-oriented, thought-provoking material both our children and our imaginative landscape need more of. That's entertainment. That's art. And that's Hammer.
The very first time anything I wrote turned up in print was a review of The Satanic Rites of Dracula in my high school newspaper. The Jesuits were appalled, but my editor, a sophomore math geek, loved it and kept me on. He's clerking for Justice Scalia now, and I'm still on about the Hammer Films. I'm not sure which one of us needs to get a life more, but I think we'd both agree that our kids will learn a whole lot more about how to comport themselves and what to engage their minds with from a good classical horror film like a Hammer Film, rather than these idiotic special-effects exercises that have run-down the genre of late. Those, or that puffy closeted dear named Barney.
...by Adam Henry Carriere