Book Review: ‘The Hammer Vault’

Need a last minute Christmas gift? Witney Seibold calls this Hammer Horror retrospective 'very, very fun!'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Most hardcore genre fans know the name of Hammer with some intimate familiarity. Hammer studios in England was one of the most prolific makers of horror and genre films from 1954 to 1975. Hammer, run by company director James Carreras, executive producer Anthony Hinds, and James' brother Michael, made 79 films in that period, all of which were gory, sexy or lurid in some striking fashion. It was here that Christopher Lee became a big star, playing Dracula. It was here that the Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera) began to shamble about once more. Here you would see wicked Chinese gangsters, gorgons, child molesters, and an endless bevvy of topless succubi line up for their chance in the spotlight. Anyone who is interested in the history of exploitation movies should have at least a passing knowledge of Hammer studios.

And, thanks to Marcus Hearn's new coffee table book The Hammer Vault: Treasures from the Archive of Hammer Films, one can easily acquire a passing knowledge of, as well as have their appetites whetted for, some of the more obscure gems in the Hammer chests.

Hammer films, I have learned, were masters of marketing, and their notorious press packets were probably the first of their kind. Press packets, by the way, are common these days, and are handed to studio heads and film  critics with alarming frequency. Hammer, often before production was even halfway finished, would shop their movies around to local cinemas. They would essentially be giving their pitches to theater owners (back when the theater owners were also in charge of booking movies), rather than to any sort of studio head. To sweeten the pot, Hammer would entice the theater owners with elaborately constructed publicity manuals, full of lurid and sexy paintings (usually by studio artist Tom Chantrell) and perhaps a few production photos. They would also include “lobby cards,” which the theater could post in their lobbies as advertising, maybe a few pages of the (often uncompleted) script, maybe some newspaper clippings of their previous successes, and some other breathless write-ups on how brilliant this movie looks.

Included in the book are a long series of recovered items from these press packets, including all the excellent paintings, a few of the write-ups, and most all of the lobby cards. Each of Hammer's 79 films is represented, each with its own two-page spread. There are also occasional archived behind-the-scenes photos of actors working on each film, as well as pictures of some of the remaining props that are left over the decades-old productions; things like crackling old rubber human hearts and moldy rubber bats. It's all very charming. I was especially fond of the picture of a man dressed as The Mummy on the set of The Mummy's Shroud (1966) enjoying a glass of milk.

Each film also contains a short written passage detailing what the film's producers went through to get the film made, and how successful it was (most of the films were big money-makers). There are a few quotations from the actors, but, sadly, no outright interviews. Indeed, the brief written histories cleave so closely to the Hammer studio, that it becomes kind of stuffy after a while. I understand that, amongst the cinephiles in the world, there are certain breeds of studio history buffs, who can tirelessly recite the details of a certain film's passage from studio to studio, and for them, this book will be ideal. For people like me, who would prefer to have more details on the actual film itself, and some artistic reminiscences from the actual creators, you'll be a mite let down.

This book is primed for browsing, and easy to get lost in. Like every coffee table book ought to be, this book is constructed so that you don't necessarily need to read it all the way through. Since each of Hammer's films is given its very own two-page spread, so you can simply open the book randomly in the middle and drink in the monsters, the topless vampire women, and the shock true crime stories with gleeful fanboy abandon. It's very, very fun.

The best part of the book comes near the end with an extended written passage about the films Hammer proposed, but were never completed. Hammer, it turns out, has one of the highest production rates in film history; that is: over 90% of the films they pitched got produced (studios these days complete only a tiny percentage of the films they plan). The ones that got passed up, then, were either too high-concept, too expensive, or just to bugnutty. It was in this section that I learned about a film called Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls. I would see that movie today, based only on its title. Imagine something like that being made in the pre-irony era. The film, planned for release in 1969, was, sadly, too expensive, as the stop-motion animation would have taken too long. I also learned that Hammer had been trying to produce a Vampirella film for many years that never got off the ground. Comic book fans probably recognize Forrest J. Ackerman's Vampirella from her skimpy, skimpy red outfit and Bettie Page haircut. Hammer planned it for 1976. A Vampirella film was eventually made, which went straight to video in 1996.

Hammer closed its doors in 1975, as theaters stopped buying their films; nationwide releases became vogue, and theater owners stopped booking on a theater-by-theater basis. Many cite the financial failure of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1973) as a tipping point. Hammer remained small for decades, only returning briefly for a remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1978, and an anthology TV series called The Hammer House of Horror, Mystery and Suspense in 1983. In 2008, however, new owners of the Hammer name decided to revive the company, and they started making movies again, and have since been responsible for the minor genre films Wake Wood, The Resident, and, most notably to Americans, the English-language remake of Let the Right One In, called Let Me In (2009). The Hammer legacy lives on. This is all detailed in the book.

As someone who knows about Hammer, but who has seen embarrassingly few of their films, The Hammer Vault was ideal. It let me fill in the gaps, and mark down which films I needed to see. For the Hammer buff, the stories may be familiar, but the photo collections are first rate. For the young genre neophyte, the book may act as an education. It's way damn fun.