The mere mention of Hammer House of Horror can still quicken the pulses of shriek geeks of a certain age. From the mid-1950s through the '60s, British production company Hammer churned out campy, gothic, low-budget pictures and TV shows featuring plenty of gore and heaving bosoms. Hammer movies once a staple of Saturday matinees, drive-ins and late-night TV in the U.S. were also the home-away-from-crypt for the most famous of ghouls, including Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and the Mummy. By the mid-'70s, though, the hits had dried up, almost sending Hammer to its grave. Like the zombies in some of its films, the studio stumbled through the '80s and '90s, surviving on a drip of licensing deals and a few television productions.
But now, Hammer has sprung back to life. Thanks to a transfusion of cash from Dutch investment fund Cyrte, the studio is making movies again. And with critics lauding its first film in more than 30 years, the vampire movie Let Me In, the new owners are hoping to leverage a legacy brand that practically screams "horror" to re-establish Hammer as a major player in a movie genre that's perpetually hot.
"Hammer is one of only a few self-defining media brands," says Simon Oakes, Hammer CEO. "It's got history, legacy and brand value." Which is why Cyrte, which also co-owns Endemol, the TV production company behind Big Brother, led a group to buy Hammer in late 2007. It's since bundled the company into the Exclusive Media Group, which includes three other recently acquired Hollywood production companies Spitfire Pictures, Newmarket Films and Exclusive Films and is backed with $100 million in financing. Cyrte won't disclose how much it spent on Hammer, but one thing is clear: "The new Hammer is far richer than the old Hammer," says British film historian and screenwriter David Pirie.
Indeed. Even in its heyday, the original Hammer was often bedeviled by money woes. Launched in the 1930s by William Hinds, a comedian whose stage name was Will Hammer, it didn't find true success until 1955, when it released the sci-fi film The Quatermass Xperiment. After an even bigger hit with Dracula, the first British Technicolor horror movie, Hammer found its calling. The horror "classics" that followed included The Curse of the Werewolf, The Devil Rides Out and Frankenstein Created Woman movies that helped turn Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into international stars. Beyond horror and sci-fi, Hammer trafficked in caveman adventures, including the hit 100 Million Years B.C. best remembered today for the image of Raquel Welch in an animal-skin bikini.
At its best, Hammer managed to combine "exploitation with quality," Pirie says. And a later generation of top directors, including Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton, have acknowledged Hammer's influence on their work Scorsese once said: "If we saw the logo of Hammer Films, we knew it was going to be a very special picture." Robert J.E. Simpson, film historian at Queen's University Belfast, says that "Hammer opened the floodgates" of combining sex and gore. But by the early '70s, that rising tide of fake blood ultimately swamped Hammer, as Hollywood studios upped the stakes with big-budget movies like The Omen and The Exorcist. In 1976, Hammer released its final horror picture, To the Devil a Daughter.
Fast-forward 34 years to the resurrected Hammer's release of Let Me In. Based on the 2008 Swedish film and earlier novel Let the Right One In, it tells the story of a bullied 12-year-old boy who befriends a vampire girl. Let Me In won rave reviews, but swooned like one of Dracula's victims at the box office. Nevertheless, Pirie calls it a promising start. "It shows [Hammer] knows how to make quality films," he says. In the can and set for release in early 2011 are psychological thriller The Resident, starring Hilary Swank, and Wake Wood, a horror tale set in Ireland. And Hammer is currently shooting The Woman in Black, a ghost story starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.
Hammer CEO Oakes says the revived studio will focus exclusively on its traditional oeuvre: horror, science fiction and adventure although he admits, that has to be dusted free of cobwebs and given a reboot to appeal to today's audiences. The cheap sets and cheesy special effects of the Hammer of yore will remain dead and buried.
Which is not to say the scary stories will stay there, too. Oakes will be mining Hammer's vault of more than 300 films for potential gold. There might be some remakes high on the list are the Quatermass movies, whose hero was an antiauthoritarian, maverick scientist. "That would be a cool character today," Oakes muses. The archive's film titles and characters will also likely feature in plans to open a theater of horror in London's West End, as well as a Hammer visitors' attraction. The studio also recently signed a deal with Random House for a Hammer imprint that will release six titles a year, novelizations of its films, old and new. And Oakes hopes to return Hammer to TV, as well, perhaps with a new anthology series.
But movies will remain the raison d'etre of the back-from-the-dead Hammer. "They're our life blood," Oakes says. And if the studio's new owners can keep the corpuscles pumping, they may save Hammer from a second more permanent demise.