There are many books on Hammer films, a veritable shelf-load in fact, not to mention the countless magazine articles and retrospectives that have appeared over the years. And if you’re already a Hammer fan you could probably recite a history of the studio in your sleep by now. But if you’re just getting into the Hammer oeuvre, you are faced with a perplexing array of titles. However for both fans old and new, I’d heartily recommend Wayne Kinsey’s Hammer Films – The Bray Studios Years.
Covering the years between 1953 and 1967, this volume presents an in-depth look at the history of England’s most blood soaked studio. Largely the story is told through quotes from the people involved with Kinsey providing all the necessary background and commentary. We get a wealth of detail on the production of the movies themselves, from how the scripts developed right through to their release and box office impact.
And this oral history approach really brings the story to life; often behind the scenes books can get a little dry and bogged down in technical issues, but hearing the details from those involved neatly avoids this. You get a clear picture of the personalities involved, a real insight into the life of a working film studio and some simply marvellous anecdotes. For example, did you know that Peter Cushing regularly used to consult his doctor and ensure that the correct surgical instruments were on show in the Frankenstein films? Or that Christopher Lee used to sing opera duets while getting his monster make-ups applied?
And on the subject of make-ups, this book doesn’t skimp of the details of the effects used. There’s a great deal of material from make-up wizards Phil Leakey and Roy Ashton and special effects maestros Les Bowie and Ian Scoones. In this age of CGI saturation, it’s wonderful to read about the craft of proper old school practical effects. These guys were often being asked to do things no one else had ever done before and have to do it under severe constraints of time and budget. Their dedication and invention really shine through and you'll look with fresh admiration at their work on screen.
However the real jewels in this book are the details of Hammer’s frequent run-ins with the censors. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, film studios did not merely present their films to the likes of BBFC and MPAA for certification; it was common practice to submit the script to the censors before filming! Now in the case of Hammer Films there was a lot of haggling over what the censors would allow them to show on screen. And thanks to Kinsey’s amazing work, we can read the full correspondence between the studio and the BBFC censors. The Hammer execs would nearly always argue the toss over every single cut and really push the envelope as far as they could. And often some of the censors’ remarks are very funny – for example on the script of the 1960 feature Terror of the Tongs, BBFC script reader Audrey Field wrote:
“It will be seen that this is basically Boy’s Own Paper stuff, transformed into Criminal Lunatic’s Own Paper stuff by the addition of some recherché brutalities”
But aside from being amusing, the interchanges between Hammer and the censors give an intriguing view into past social attitudes on sex and violence in the media. For example, with the psycho-thriller Paranoiac (1962) the BBFI was not concerned by the violence but the fact that some of the scenes of mayhem took place in a chapel. This BBFC material alone, which has not been covered in any other volumes, make it one of the best biographies available on the studio. Kinsey deserves high praise for this exhaustive and unique research.
Of course this isn’t the full history of Hammer, but Kinsey has written a companion book which charts the rest of the studios' life - Hammer Films – The Elstree Studio Years - which needless to say, I’ll be tracking down as soon possible. Overall this is a brilliant book on Hammer, whether you're a novice or an old hand. Highly recommended!
JIM MOON, 24th March 2009