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Mélanie Boisseaunneau, Gilles Menegaldo, Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (eds). Dark Recesses in the House of Hammer

Hervé Mayer
Bibliographical reference

Mélanie Boisseaunneau, Gilles Menegaldo, Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (eds). Dark Recesses in the House of Hammer, New York, Peter Lang, 2022, ISBN: 9781433186585

Full text

1This edited collection on the productions of the iconic British horror film studio Hammer considers the Hammer films as a historical landmark and lasting influence in the development of the horror genre and its contemporary popularity in film and TV productions. Several books and edited collections have already devoted themselves to the analysis of the studio since the early 1970s. Many of those works tended to focus on the history of the studio, its major figures (director Terence Fisher, actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), the socio-historical context of their productions or some of their aesthetic qualities. Acknowledging the importance of these previous works, the contributions of this collection seek to add to the scholarship on Hammer films by mobilizing contemporary theories and approaches (on film aesthetics, genre, gender, or postcoloniality) and providing analysis of hitherto neglected works.

2The collection is organized in five parts which tackle various aesthetic, political and historical aspects of the studio’s productions. The first part entitled “Iconic Monsters and Actors” focuses on individual figures – fictional characters such as Frankenstein or the Phantom of the Opera and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – and the way in which Hammer and its actors both revived and rewrote the literary and cinematic icons of Gothic horror. Part II entitled “Genre and gender” and part IV entitled “Post-Colonial Gothic and Imperial Politics” explore the political meanings of the horror and Gothic genres as they are framed in Hammer films, analyzing the types of discourses the films produce in terms of gender and racial politics. Some of the contributions in these two parts approach these political aspects from novel perspectives (analysis of lesser-known films and film cycles or focus on lesser-known creative contributors). Part III, “Aesthetics of Horror”, centers on the characteristic formal features of Hammer films seen through the lens of color, landscape painting, music, or sound. Three contributions in that part focus almost exclusively on sound, building on an important field of study in horror film analysis. The last part, “Mutations, Unmade Projects and Resurrection”, explores the Hammer productions with a historical perspective, looking at the studio’s transformations past its heydays, its resilience and lasting influence on the horror genre, and a film project in the 1990s that was never made. Several themes cross and unite the different parts of the book, key among them being the question of Britishness and the articulation of national concerns with transnational narratives, genres, and products. The introduction frames the collection with a historical overview of the Hammer films and an appraisal of the existing scholarship on the studio. The entire work is prefaced by Antonio Sanna. It concludes with a general bibliography organized thematically that adds to the works cited lists available at the end of each contribution, and a short yet useful thematic index that cross-references the various contributions.

3Part I on “Iconic Monsters and Actors” starts with Isabelle Labrouillère’s analysis of Frankenstein as re-created in Hammer’s first classic The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Labrouillère analyzes how director Terence Fisher breaks away from previous representations of the myth by a mise-en-abîme of mythmaking through the monster’s creation. The film mobilizes various reflexive strategies (intertextuality, intermediality, thematization of creation) to produce a “metafilmic discourse” (24) and “build a unique parole […]” (25) freed from simple repetition and variation. Dorota Babilas then focuses on the French character of the Phantom of the Opera and its “Anglicization” (29) in The Phantom of the Opera (1962). Babilas questions the notion of adaptation in the case of that film, which reprises character traits and story lines from earlier versions yet introduces drastic changes – the Victorian setting of the story and the romanticization of the Phantom as a tragic hero – with a lasting influence on other Hammer productions and later versions of the character. Hélène Valmary’s contribution concludes Part I with an analysis of the acting style of the two most iconic actors of Hammer studio – Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – as they worked in duo in five Hammer productions between 1957 and 1964. Valmary analyzes the success of their pairing as a blend of contrast – physical, gestural, in the mise-en-scène – and “flow and exchange” (46) – the ambiguous interrelation of creator and creature, enhanced by body movement as much as other cinematic means – and sees in their “system” an articulation of “the two opposite tendencies of British art” – rationalism and romanticism – which “would be a fundamental feature of British horror cinema embodied by Hammer Films” (49).

4Part II on “Genre and Gender” starts with Jean-François Baillon’s analysis of an alternative canon in Hammer Films, made up of a cycle of psycho-thrillers released between 1960 and 1972. Baillon’s contribution discusses the coherence of these neglected Hammer productions as a cycle and relocates them within a transnational development of the horror genre towards postmodern aesthetics from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Their statistical importance in the total studio output (more than supernatural Gothic horror films), artistic ambitions, and reflexive quality shed a new light on Hammer’s image as a studio. Gaïd Girard then focuses on the representation of declining masculinity in the science-fiction trilogy Quatermass (1955-1967), analyzing the ambiguities and limitations of the eponymous scientist confronted with alien threats that are ever closer to the self. Girard proposes a socio-historical analysis of gender in the trilogy as an expression of white male vulnerability in the context of postcoloniality and feminism. The next contribution by David Roche looks at a series of Hammer films updating the horror canon in the early 1970s – a pivotal time in the studio’s history – and discusses their contrasting strategies in adapting setting and narrative to contemporary British society. While the Dracula films (1972, 1973) fail to update the transgressive politics of the vampire in keeping with their Swinging London setting, The Vampire Lovers (1970) and its sequels as well as Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) rely on their historical 18th- and 19th-century settings to destabilize heteronormativity and the gender binary in daring ways, the setting in these latter cases providing a “safe distance” (99) from which to explore political modernity. Concluding Part II is Jean-Pierre Naugrette’s contribution on The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) which offers a reflection on the film’s introducing chess game absent from the novel, its figural importance in the film, and its legacy in later detective films. The game offers a counterpoint to the association of the film with a Hammer brand of horror all while responding to the source novel and anticipating the film’s drama.

5Cécile Carayol’s contribution on Hammer vampire film scores opens Part III on the “Aesthetics of Horror” with a perceptive demonstration of “the existence of a transversal musical language of vampires” (123). Carayol precisely identifies key musical devices found in vampire films and TV series within Hammer production and beyond, and traces most of these devices back to Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958). Jean-Michel Durafour then focuses on the visual motif of the landscape, its pictorial representation, and its aesthetic dissemination through the color green in Terence Fisher’s films for Hammer. Durafour analyzes how Fisher achieves a kind of pervading intermediality in the reduction of the landscape as object, its presence as representation – the landscape painting – and its diffusion in the film form. Color is also the focus of Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard’s next contribution on the work of cinematographer Jack Asher on three Hammer films of the late 1950s and the development of a distinctly Hammer chromatic style. Color becomes a visual language used to contrast the real world – toned-down hues – with the uncanny – bright primary colors – while colorlessness – especially in night scenes – is exploited as a “signifier for the gothic genre” (164), referencing and reappropriating the Americanized Hollywood versions of European myths. Asher borrows and adapts black and white techniques such as the chiaroscuro to color, retaining its expressionistic values, all while playing on the connotative potential of color. Next, Robyn J. Stilwell analyzes the use of sound in relation to the science fiction genre in Quatermass the original TV series (BBC, 1953), the first film of the Hammer trilogy (1955), and the live telefilm version of The Quatermass Experiment (2005) for Channel 4. The Hammer science fiction film distinguishes itself by slipping into horror through its use of sound as the primary conveyor of information, while all versions of Quatermass create similar “sonic profiles” (186) for key narrative spaces by blending electronic sound with vocal elements. Philippe Met’s contribution concludes Part III with another exploration of sound combined with visuals in the representations of children in Hammer horror films. Met identifies their characteristics as a play on “aurality-visuality and presence-absence” (197) and discusses their association with primal trauma and repression.

6Part IV on “Post-Colonial Gothic and Imperial Politics” opens with Christian Chelebourg’s contribution on the figure of the beast in three of John Gilling’s creations for Hammer (as screenwriter in The Gorgon or director in The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile). Gilling’s versions of evil tend to mitigate imperial oppositions of us and them by bringing otherness closer to Western norm – translating voodoo into the language of Christianity or locating the monster within accomplished white women – while destabilizing imperial hierarchies of knowledge – the power of scientific rationality. The next contribution by Rehan Hyder continues the exploration of otherness with an analysis of two of Hammer’s colonial horror films, The Stranglers of Bombay (1960) and The Mummy (1959), and the way those films reproduce essentialist imperial dichotomies of civilized and savage. Hyder focuses especially on the figure of the Thug and its role in cementing established colonial discourse in these and later colonial-themed popular fictions. Vicky Balden’s contribution adopts a complimentary perspective on the imperial politics of Hammer films by offering a postcolonial analysis of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, in which she finds that the horror is a “reflection of the very real horror of British colonial dominance revealed in its absurdity” (242). Through the motif of the doppelgänger, the films reduce the difference between savage and civilized, “the Other provid[ing] a mirror for the self” (256). Jean-Marie Lecomte’s contribution concludes Part IV with an exploration of the politics of knowledge in The Abominable Snowmen (1957) and lesser-known Hammer gothic films. Lecomte argues that Hammer films’ explanations of the uncanny and supernatural ultimately rely on Christian and occult beliefs typical of 19th-century thinking rather than the new scientific paradigms of the 1950s, although they raise important epistemological questions.

7Ian Conrich opens the fifth and last part of the collection, “Mutations, Unmade Projects and Resurrection”, with an exploration of genre hybridity in 1970s Hammer horror films as an unsuccessful economic strategy. Hammer incorporated various transnational trends of exploitation cinema, then reprised themes of the new US-American horror films, with an economic model split between low-budget and ambitious productions. Matt Jones then unearths the history of Hammer’s unmade remake of The Day the Earth Caught Fire in the 1990s as a way to qualify arguments about the relative inactivity of the studio in that decade. The new script highlights Hammer’s strategies in an attempt to revive production: “Americanization of focus, a move into popular genres beyond horror and an appeal to prominent public discourses of the moment” (310). The next contribution by Marisa C. Hayes moves beyond Hammer to its legacy in the cult camp film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Hayes shows that the film is a “quintessential pastiche” (311) of Hammer horror, particularly the Terence Fisher films, which inspired many of its transgressive themes as well as its construction as a “baroque patchwork” (323) or a filmic Frankenstein creature. The final contribution to Part V and the collection is Sophie Mantrant’s analysis of Hammer’s The Woman in Black (2012) as an undeclared throwback to the golden age of Hammer and British horror film. The film rests on suggestion, restraint, and a serious tone as a reaction to the graphic, gore, and postmodern humor of contemporary horror in order to promote Hammer’s anchoring in a British tradition.

8The collection is a fruitful addition to the literature on Hammer, shedding new light on the studio’s lesser-known productions and providing insightful analysis of many of its films. The structure of the collection is clear and consistent. The overall work reads very well and yields astute and solid arguments on its object. Many of the analyses in the collection are brilliant. A more elaborate introduction identifying the core arguments and input of the collection would have strengthened its scientific coherence beyond the object of Hammer studio. But the varied contributions offer a wide range of perspectives on the studio’s output even as they respond to, and complement, each other in stimulating ways. For instance, while the analyses of Babilas, Costa de Beauregard, and Mantrant suggest an assertion of Britishness in Hammer films, Baillon, Walden, and Conrich emphasize their situation within transnational cultural and industrial contexts. Or whereas Roche and Hyder emphasize the conservative ideological frameworks that can structure some Hammer productions, Girard and Walden highlight how some films subvert these frameworks in their form and content. The index is here very useful to highlight those conversations within the collection. In any case, any scholar working on Hammer, horror, or British films will have to read it.

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References

Electronic reference

Hervé Mayer, “Mélanie Boisseaunneau, Gilles Menegaldo, Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (eds). Dark Recesses in the House of HammerMiranda [Online], 28 | 2023, Online since 13 October 2023, connection on 15 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/55878; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.55878

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