In the decades following the Second World War, Hammer Studios produced a number of films in the horror genre. These decades were considered the ‘Golden Age’ of British Cinema (1945-1975) and filmmakers were trying to experiment and explore the medium of cinema. The period witnessed “the evolution of a radical and subversive cinema focused upon challenging the moral codes and conservative values of the British establishment.” Hammer Studios emerged as an influential player in British cinema during the 1950s. It marked a “direct reaction to postwar optimism and the subsequent rise of a conservative political system. It also represented alternative artistic strategies operating in opposition to the realist tendencies of classical British cinema.” (Wilson, 2007) It was in this milieu that Hammer Studios’ foray into horror films will have to be analyzed. The rest of this essay will identify Hammer Studios’ contribution to the Gothic tradition in British cinema by way of citing its popular productions.
The horror genre is fairly controversial because of the amount of gore and violence that it entails. To this extent, the productions of Hammer Studios were relegated to cult status within a section of mainstream media. But as noted journalist Peter Hutchings points out “these films do draw upon, represent and are always locatable in relation to much broader shifts and tendencies in British social history.” (Wilson, 2007) Indeed, Hammer Studios singlehandedly revitalized the Gothic tradition within British cinema. Although the studio continued to operate within a number of different generic models,
“its emphasis upon the redefinition of the horror genre represented a revival of the Gothic British cultural tradition…the return of this tradition to postwar Britain aptly reflected Cold War anxieties and a repressed desire to subvert the moral patterns of the dominant establishment. It also foreshadowed future oppositional movements championing alternative ideologies as exemplified by radical directions in theatre by “The Angry Young Men” and culminating in punk rock.” (Wilson, 2007)
There is a political dimension behind Hammer’s revival of the Gothic tradition. This is so because by creating new undercurrents to the formation of national cultural identity, Hammer enabled ideological opposition to the status quo. During the 1950s, when Hammer Studios became a prominent production house, the cultural and political values were fairly orthodox. The studio’s genius is in being able to use traditional “generic cinematic structures as a method through which to reflect and subvert a conservative value system.” (Wilson, 2007) Following the release of The Quatermass Xperiment,
“Hammer attempted to capitalize upon the freedom that the X-rating allowed through the production of such sci-fi films as X–The Unknown (1956). Despite its status as a minor work within the Hammer oeuvre, the film remains significant in that “it firmly established Hammer’s transition from B-movie thrillers to out-and-out horror/science fiction.” (Wilson, 2007)