Fangs for the memories

Hammer's horror movies are being resurrected, 32 years after a stake was put through their heart. Damian Corless reports

Ingrid Pitt in 'The Vampire Lovers'

Damian Corless

Recalling the heyday of the horror movie, director Martin Scorsese enthused: "In my early teens I went with groups of friends to see certain films. If we saw the logo of Hammer, we knew it was going to be a very special picture. A surprising experience. And shocking."

The shock value of The Curse Of Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dracula might be lost on the modern viewer, but when they splattered onto cinema screens in the late 1950s they were radically new. Employing a formula that re-energised the genre, and Peter Cushing pitted endlessly against Christopher Lee, the movies became global blockbusters.

But the thing about shock is that after a while it's not shocking any more. In 1976, after a decade reduced to churning out ever cheaper thrills, Hammer shut up shop. Next week, however, the shutters come up again with the release of Beyond The Rave, a love story involving marauding vampires, an Iraq war backdrop and a soundtrack by DJ Pete Tong.

Beyond The Rave features a cameo by 70-year-old Ingrid Pitt, the statuesque Pole who remains an iconic Hammer Horror vamp. But while Pitt's mere presence will notch up brownie points with males of a certain vintage, Hammer is pinning its hopes of resurrecting the franchise on drawing young blood via new technology.

Starting next Wednesday, Beyond The Rave will be broadcast in 20 five-minute 'webisodes' on the networking website MySpace, before transferring to DVD in the summer. Some cynics have suggested that the reason for the unorthodox format has less to do with pioneering cyberspace than with the possibility that blood-drenched, low-budget disco movies are not currently a hot item with cinema distributors.

Not so, say the makers, who insist their goal is to push back boundaries. Director Matthias Hoene says the new format meets new consumer demands, explaining: "If you want to watch something short during your break or while you're on the bus; if you want to be entertained for just a little while, it's perfect. "

In fact, Beyond The Rave fits more neatly into the Hammer tradition than many might expect, as the studio made its reputation by embracing both innovation and the art of the quick turnaround. In the 1930s and 1940s the company was essentially a production line for 'quota quickies'. Always striving to cut corners, Hammer found that it was cheaper to rent out run-down country houses for shooting purposes, and to film two movies back-to-back, using the same costumes, props and cast.

The 1950s was to be Hammer's golden decade. In 1953 it branched out from crime tales into the mad s cientist genre. For good measure, Four Sided Triangle featured not just one mad scientist but two, both of them in love with the same childhood sweetheart. When their rivalry becomes too much, with flawless mad scientist logic, they clone her so there's one each.

Two years later, Hammer struck gold with its first horror movie, The Quatermass Experiment, which was retitled The Quatermass Xperiment to exploit the titillating fact that a new X-Certificate had been introduced in Britain for adult films.

The success of Quatermass persuaded Hammer to make a full-blooded plunge into horror, and in order to discover how much horror it could get away with, the studio started submitting advance scripts to the censorship board. The script for 1957's Dracula provoked a typical response from one board member who wrote: "The uncouth, uneducated, disgusting and vulgar style of Mr Jimmy Sangster [the writer] cannot quite obscure the remnants of a good horror story, though they do give one the gravest misgivings about treatment. The curse of this thing is the Technicolor blood. Why need vampires be messier eaters than anyone else? Certainly strong cautions will be necessary on shots of blood. And of course, some of the stake-work is prohibitive."

By then, however, Hammer's The Curse Of Frankenstein was drawing millions around the world, and the studio had less need to kow-tow to what Britain's censors thought. Filmed in garish Technicolor, The Curse Of Frankenstein featured more lurid gore than any movie before it, and rewrote the rules of acceptability. When the "disgusting and vulgar" Dracula followed, it broke the box-office records set by Frankenstein, before a third release, The Mummy, did even better.

Further successes followed, and not always within the horror genre. Hammer famously introduced Raquel Welch in the 1966 smash, One Million Years BC, which formed the first of the studio's increasingly jaded 'cave girl' quartet. By the late 1960s the formula was wearing thin (in all, Hammer made six Frankenstein and eight Dracula sequels).

The horror genre itself was changing too, with Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho introducing a more understated psychological style. Hammer's buckets-of-guts style, which had shocked audiences just a decade before, now looked phoney.

When The Exorcist arrived in 1973 and subjected its audiences to non-stop trauma, the game was almost up. It wasn't just the violence that was hurting Hammer, it was the sex too. In the years immediately before the emergence of the 'permissive society', Hammer tickled the public's fancy by serving up the gore with a dainty sprinkling of eroticism.

By the end of the 1960s, movies had become far more risqué, and Hammer responded by upping the gratuitous sex and nudity. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), a rape scene was included even though it had nothing to do with the plot and was never referred to by any of the characters in the film.

The sexploitation policy was pursued through a series of tacky and largely unsuccessful movies with titles like Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula and Lust For A Vampire. In the end, even Christopher Lee could bear no longer to be associated with the faltering franchise. At a press conference to launch The Satanic Rites Of Dracula in 1973, he let it all spill out and described the movie he was there to promote as "fatuous", "pointless" and "absurd".

Cinema has moved on, and chillers have got more chilly, but for a hearty romp on the dark side of life, Hammer's classics are to be cherished.