Our Hammer Horror retrospective continues with a look at their 1980 TV series.
By the end of the 1970s, Hammer was essentially a spent force. The company had spent the first few years of the decade scrabbling around to stay relevant during quickly changing tastes without ever quite knowing how to – while filmmakers working for Hammer came up with interesting ideas to adapt the Hammer style, often they were hamstrung by the company itself, which seemed to struggle to understand anything outside their traditional fare – the more adventurous and innovative a film was, the more likely it was to be shoved at the bottom half of a double-bill. By the time Hammer was forced to make radical changes, it was too late – their films struggled to even film distribution in the all-important American market and the films that were box office successes didn’t benefit the company, the lion’s share of profits being swallowed up by distribution partners. Michael Carreras, who took over the company from his father in the early Seventies, found himself saddled with a company that had no money and a British film industry in quick decline, and then made things worse by coming up with wildly ambitious, big-budget projects that in retrospect were never going to happen – Vampirella, Nessie and the like were probably not the films to be pouring all your resources into when you didn’t have many resources and once those projects collapsed, Hammer was screwed. A woefully misguided remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1978 was the final straw; Hammer seemed dead and fans were understandably bitter that things had fizzled out with such a lacklustre film – not even a horror movie, to add insult to injury.
Carreras had to finally sell off the Hammer name, to Roy Skeggs and Brian Lawrence. Skeggs had been a Hammer producer in the 1970s and so the company didn’t seem as though it had fallen into entirely alien hands, and the new Hammer hit the ground running with big ideas. Smartly, they figured that they should dial back the ambition and (re)start small – on the small screen, to be precise. Hammer House of Horror was a thirteen-episode TV series that was broadcast from September to December 1980 on ITV. Financed by ITC, the series seemed the ideal way back in for Hammer, testing the waters and establishing a new audience that could then be used to help finance future feature films – ITC was, after all, Britain’s major film producer at the time, making ambitious big-budget films aimed at the international audience even as the rest of the British film industry became ever-more insular and grotty. the series was shown at peak time – 9pm on a Saturday evening, a prime slot at the time, and was an immediate ratings hit. Everything looked positive – here was a series that not only re-established the Hammer name for people who had already, by this point, started to think of it as something from the past but also pointed the way forward for the company to finally shrug off the baggage of the Hammer tradition.
The first episode, Witching Time, teased audiences in its opening pre-credits sequence with what seemed to be a typical Hammer Horror gothic moment before pulling the rug from under us and revealing it to be a scene from a film-within-a-film that the lead character was composing the music for. The episode then essentially set out what we might expect from the series – contemporary stories rather than period pieces, and narratives that rarely touched on the classic Hammer themes – witchcraft was not, after all, a regular Hammer story. The show also reassured us that there was to be no compromise just because these were TV episodes – Witching Time is notable for its splashy gore scenes and extensive nudity from Patricia Quinn as the reincarnated witch who seduces David (Jon Finch). It was gleefully lurid stuff and did not disappoint – this felt like the sort of thing Hammer should be making, trading on the company’s reputation for blood and boobs but modernising the stories for a new audience.
The ratings were strong – and this would prove to be the show’s stumbling block in some ways. Skeggs and ITC realised that there were a lot of kids watching the show – because 9pm was not exactly bedtime on a Saturday night and the whole idea of a watershed was still more of an unspoken industry agreement than a legal requirement. Obviously, every teenage boy who watched Hammer House of Horror absolutely revelled in the nudity and bad taste, but the producers began to worry about complaints. The nudity was quickly scaled back – only episode three, Rude Awakening, had more bare breasts courtesy of Lucy Gutteridge – and the gore was also toned down. This was not, I would suggest, to the benefit of the series.
Nevertheless, the first half-dozen episodes are impressively strong. The series explored a cult of cannibal gourmets (The Thirteenth Reunion), strange medical experiments (Growing Pains) and voodoo (Charlie Boy), while one of the best-remembered episodes, The House That Bled To Death, is a witty put-down of The Amityville Horror, with a couple who fake a haunting at their house in order to secure a book deal and Hollywood movie, but find that traumatising their small child in the process has unexpected consequences. The fact that the episode is much more genuinely scary than The Amityville Horror movie is the icing on the cake here. The afore-mentioned Rude Awakening is also hugely impressive, a twisting puzzle of a story in which a twitchy Denholm Elliot plays an estate agent who is caught in a never-ending series of dreams. These stories are a world away from what we knew as Hammer Horror, and all the better for that, showing that the company could successfully modernise. In fact, a few of these tales could’ve easily been expanded beyond the hour-long format into feature-length.
Perhaps to establish a connection to the past, the series employed Hammer directors like Peter Sasdy, Tom Clegg, Robert Young, Don Sharp and Alan Gibson to helm episodes (Terence Fisher was also lined up to shoot an episode, but ill-health forced him to withdraw; he would die before the series was broadcast). It’s hard to honestly say that any of the directors brought a personal touch to the episodes, but nevertheless, their presence seemed to make it feel more authentically Hammer. Peter Cushing also turned up in the episode Silent Scream, which seemed to signal a bit of a decline for the series. Here, he plays a Nazi concentration camp guard turned pet shop owner who psychologically tortures a man and while it’s not terrible, it did feel more like a Tales of the Unexpected episode.
The second half of the series is a decidedly mixed bag. Children of the Full Moon is a slow return to the werewolf story – the only episode of the series to explore ‘traditional’ Hammer monsters, though of course the company had only ever made one werewolf movie and so perhaps it seemed a safe enough bet for a show that was trying to remove itself from the past. It’s not, I have to say, a great episode and is decidedly lacking in werewolf action. Carpathian Eagle and Children of the Abyss are solid but unremarkable occult stories and the final three episodes – Visitor from the Grave, The Two Faces of Evil and The Mark of Satan are all as forgettable and generic as their titles suggest, more psychological than supernatural. It did feel as though the series was running out of steam by the end, but on the whole, there was more good than bad here – and the ratings remained solid, suggesting that the Hammer revival was a great success. The show even spawned a popular soundtrack seven-inch featuring Roger Webb’s evocative theme tune. The best, surely, was yet to come. If nothing else, the series felt like a worthy successor to Brain Clemens’ Thriller, another Saturday night series of individual stories that flipped between crime stories and supernatural horror. That had been a hugely popular show a few years earlier, running for several seasons and there was no reason to expect that this would be any different.
Of course, Hammer’s run of bad luck would continue. ITC collapsed after the series was broadcast, scuppering plans for a second season, other TV shows and any feature films. It would be three years before Hammer did anything else, and when they did it was the lamentable Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, a series of lacklustre TV movies aimed at the US market that quickly vanished without trace, tucked away in the middle of the night. Hammer was, once again, dead in the water. For the next few decades, Hammer would be bought and sold, new films announced and then never materialising and fans left assuming that they’d never see the name attached to a new film again. As we know, Hammer would eventually rise from the grave once again in the 2000s – though it does currently seem to once again be on its last legs.
Hammer House of Horror has never been hugely popular with Hammer traditionalists who have long been dismissive of the series as both a crude and trashy production and too removed from the Hammer style for their taste (though Hammer’s horror films have a long tradition of contemporary psychological shockers running parallel to the gothic films). It’s certainly a mixed bag and wildly inconsistent, perhaps ultimately too restrained for its own good – but there are some really great, very smart and deliciously outrageous stories in these thirteen shows and it’s a pity that we didn’t get more. Perhaps the modern Hammer – which once again seems bogged down in trying to make big-budget, respectable horror movies instead of making full-blooded exploitation movies – should think about reviving the idea. The streaming market seems ready-made for a new take on the series and the name alone feels like a great way of pulling in an audience for transgressive, full-blooded outrageous horror stories.
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