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Death Slot: It’s ‘Hammer’ Time

It is Halloween and that means horror and what was the movie studio that made gothic horror cool again after the Universal Monsters faded away?

Hammer. Since this is a television column I think you can guess that Hammer also did TV work as well… although not because they wanted to but I will get to that.

Hammer is the horror house known for it’s fashionable updating of classic gothic horror in the 1960’s and 1970’s but they also dabbled in television as well as the cinema screen. Hammer first attempted to break into television with the 1958 pilot Tales of Frankenstein. Shot in black and white with the signature Hammer style. Sadly this never came to be more than a curiosity and a valiant (if not short sighted) experiment.

In 1968 Hammer again attempted to get into the TV scene with Journey To The Unknown, this time with 20th Century Fox as a partner. A scant 17 episodes in the UK edited into 8 TV Movies in US.

By the 1960’s though Hammer was quickly becoming THE horror movie production house outside of America. Gorgeous sprawling sets, gothic architecture and modern takes on the classic monsters who had once been the backbone of Universal Pictures in the 1930’s. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman and the Mummy stood along side witches and other new monsters with Hammer blazing a trail into the night. With this recontextualizing of the old horror though new traits had to be added, namely gore and boobies were now stars alongside the monsters and madmen. Hammer films were never shy about the skin nor what lies beneath.

Alas as the 1970’s were coming to a close Hammer was unable to keep up the quality (not to mention their market being flooded by the likes of Roger Corman and Charles Band). Becoming somewhat desperate it was time to look at television once again.

In a kind of last ditch effort to save the company Roy Skeggs and Brian Lawrence pitched an anthology TV series. This kept the name out there while the company attempted to stay above water and find new film ventures that could save them. This would not come to be.

Hammer House of Horror was shot in early 1980 and aired in the UK on ITV  where the 13 episodes were quickly forgotten and mostly lost to time. Not being aired in the US was a huge detriment to the success of this Hammer Studios idea.

Carrying provocative titles such as: Witching Time, The House that Bled to Death, The Silent Scream, Children of the Full Moon and Visitor from the Grave who could resist a Hammer TV show? Everyone apparently. It seemed that by 1980 Hammer had lost it’s luster even to British audiences.

There is also the odd choice that outside of a single flashback sequence in the first episode everything in Hammer House Of Horror is set in contemporary 1980.

Sure the old crew was back behind the camera and some of the old cast were in front of it (most notably Peter Cushing) but this did not feel very much like Hammer.

Gothic landscapes and crumbling mansions were the Hammer trademark and when they attempted to go contemporary in the mid-1970’s with the later Dracula films… it was not well received by the audiences. That alone makes the decision to set all the stories “now” ever more risky. I wager it was budgetary as the studio was on it’s last legs, desperately trying to stay alive and shooting in the present day was far cheaper than finding a location which can pass for “period” or building sets. Intentionally or not the entire series of Hammer House Of feels like an updated version of Boris Karloff Presents Thriller. That is not an inherently bad thing.

American audiences only could read about the show and didn’t get to actually see it until The Sci-Fi Channel aired the episodes in the early 1990’s… or so they thought. Actually US audiences DID get to see the series… they just didn’t know they did.

In 1985 IVE Home Video created a sub-series titled “Thriller Video” which was hosted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, herself. This tape line was old movies such as The Monster Club and Dead of Night (1977). The line also had some strange “movies” that were new to Americans; Witching Time, The Thirteenth Reunion, Rude Awakening, Growing Pains, The House that Bled to Death, Charlie Boy, The Silent Scream, Children of the Full Moon, Carpathian Eagle, Guardian of the Abyss, Visitor from the Grave, The Two Faces Of Evil, and The Mark of Satan, formerly known as episodes of Hammer House Of Horror.

Yes indeed, “Thriller Video” simply lopped off the Hammer openings and sold each episode of the show as a “movie” and we were none the wiser (to be fair it was obvious after a while these were television episodes but at the time with no internet we could not quite nail it down). The Elvira bits were quite possibly the reason this series sold as many units as it did but overseas US audiences thought they were getting something new when in fact they were being sold a 5 year old British TV show one episode at a time.

In the early days of the Sci-Fi Channel the show was aired (with the Hammer titles intact) for the first time since 1980. In 2012 Synapse Releasing put the series on DVD.

By 1984 Hammer was beyond desperate and their final gasp was again a TV anthology series.

Teaming up yet again with 20th Century Fox Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense came to be. This time, though in case the series was not a success, Fox wanted to hedge their bets; so each episode was 90 minutes (75 without commercials) and was able to be sold as a TV movie if need be (this was indeed done internationally). With FOX on board another concession had to be made… US stars. Each episode was shot in Europe with a name American star in the lead. David Carradine, Dirk Benedict, Susan George, Dean Stockwell and Peter Graves are just a smattering of the recognizable faces in this incarnation.

Obviously eschewing the horror that Hammer was so famous for in favor of mystery the series was not nearly as good as it’s predecessor. Aired in a slapshot fashion in the UK with different episodes playing in different regions and in America the series running as “Fox Mystery Theater” losing even the Hammer brand recognition. The 90 minute runtime made the episodes feel padded and bloated and the lack of the Hammer name in the US hurt more than anything. So stretched was this version that 2 episodes (A Distant Scream and In Possession) are actually remakes of Out Of The Unknown stories (a BBC series from years prior).

Until 2008 this would be the last production to bear the Hammer logo and this new version is not really Hammer… it just has the name.

The Hammer House Of series are worth checking out as there are some exceptional episodes of both series but as complete shows they are severely lacking in staying power. As stated you can get Hammer House Of Horror fairly easily while House of Mystery and Suspense is rather hard to find, never having had a US DVD release (there is a UK one).

I recommended at least finding these (one from each series):

Hammer House Of Horror:
The Silent Scream with Peter Cushing(!) and Brian Cox.
Cushing is a simple pet shop proprietor who happened to be a former concentration camp guard and still retains some… tendencies. Cox (a recently released inmate) becomes the subject of a very sick and strange social experiment. Arguably the best episode of the series and a damn fine hour of television.

Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense:
Child’s Play with Mary Crosby.
Waking up one day to find that every entrance (and exit) to their home is bricked up a family soon finds themselves cut off from the world and being stalked by something in their home. A fantastic and bonkers twist at the end. A tense episode reminding one of The Outer Limits.



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