The cognoscenti will have no
doubt noted this is the third home video resurrection of
writer-director-co-producer Ted Newsom’s Flesh
& Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror. Originally issued on VHS in 1999 as part of Anchor Bay’s ambitious and
much welcomed “Hammer Collection” series, this affectionate documentary was
subsequently ported over to DVD in 2004 by Image Entertainment, Inc. Both of those earlier releases shared a
running time of some ninety-nine minutes. This comprehensive new version, curiously issued again on DVD rather than
as an upgraded Blu, boasts of a “Digitally Remastered Expanded Director’s Cut.” This newest incarnation, as promised, has
been expanded with an additional thirty-seven minutes of material. Whether or not the tighter original cut has
been artistically or informatively superseded by this director’s cut is open to
argument. While the new version is of more
generous length, it must be said the story arc occasionally meanders, unnecessarily
bloated by too-familiar footage culled from original trailers.
Regardless, this documentary
is an essential item for fans of Hammer, thoughtfully outlining the studio’s metamorphosis
from a small film distribution company to a vanguard of the British film
industry. In the mid 1930s Hammer’s
earliest successes were with such monochrome dramas as Songs of Freedom (with Paul Robeson) and mysteries as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (with
Bela Lugosi). Not surprisingly, it
really wasn’t until after the country emerged from the rubble of WWII that the
studio would hit a proper stride, adapting such popular British radio shows as Dick Baron: Special Agent as cinematic
properties. But it wasn’t until the
studio acquired the rights to bring Nigel Kneale’s popular science fiction BBC
television series The Quatermass
Experiment to the big screen in 1955 that Hammer’s course was set. The success of that film spawned a sequel and
a knockoff which would signal what would follow. Beginning with TheCurse of Frankenstein
(1957), the studio would score with an influential and commercially successful string
of science-fiction, fantasy and horror films. These successes cemented the studio’s reputation as Britain’s preeminent
In that regard, Hammer had appropriated
the mantle previously held by Universal Studios as the foremost purveyor of
Gothic horror cinema. Though the studio
was barred from utilizing Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up designs - as well as other
Universal inventions protected by copyright – such public domain properties as
Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein were free for an
original and modern updating. If
anything, the time was right for the torch of the angry villager to be passed
on. Universal had all but abandoned their
dependable stable of classic monsters, choosing instead to bring creatures of
the atom-age to the screen. As Flesh & Blood astutely notes, Hammer
would inadvertently rescue these monsters of folklore from the ignominy of their
being mere slapstick foils to Abbott and Costello. With their distinctive trademark mix of splashy
Technicolor, tawdry bloodletting, overt sexuality, and a battery of dreamy screen
sirens (and unashamed displays of ample cleavage), the studio effectively
reenergized interest in gothic-horror cinema.
To be sure, this is not an
easy story to tell to satisfaction. Flesh
& Blood bravely attempts to thoroughly document the sprawling history
and trajectory of Hammer’s hits and misses, offering a score of first-person
and genuinely interesting procession of candid talking-head interviews. The studio, as many of this film’s
participants take great pains to point out here, was a business first and
foremost. The producers were primarily interested
in turning a tidy profit on their investment and productions were sometimes
hobbled by miserly budgeting. Even in
the studio’s halcyon days (1957-1972) most of the studio’s film projects – many
pre-sold to distributors on little more than a colorful mock-up of an
exploitative film poster – adhered to a tight six week shooting schedule.
As the principal photography
of this documentary began as early as 1993, the pool of talent available for
interview had not yet been thinned by time and age. In truth, there’s hardly a then-surviving veteran
from behind or in front of Hammer’s cameras who isn’t interviewed or referenced
in the film. In a particular masterstroke,
the producers were able to enlist the studio’s two greatest and most iconic star
players, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, to serve as principal narrators of
the opus. It’s mostly Lee’s narration
that carries the documentary forward, though the wasting, frail voice of a
clearly ailing Peter Cushing also bravely serves in this capacity.
interviews, home movies, trailers, vintage newsreels, stock footage, photographs,
promotional materials, and elements sourced from television archives, we are
introduced to the surviving men and woman who served as the studio’s primary
movers and shakers. Those sharing
behind-the camera memories are Michael
Carreras, Anthony Hinds, Roy Ward Baker, Don Sharp, Freddie Francis, Aida
Young, Jimmy Sangster, Richard Matheson, and composer James Bernard amongst others. Among those who appeared on the silver screen
and were happy to share their insights and warm recollections are the bosomy
starlets who were the epitomes of “Hammer Glamour:” Ingrid Pitt, Martine
Beswick, Caroline Munro, Hazel Court, Raquel Welch, and Veronica Carlson.
Everyone involved is in agreement that the “family atmosphere” was prevalent at Hammer Studios. The films were cranked out by a team of artists and technicians working loyally behind the camera while something akin to a repertory company performed before it. Throughout this documentary, producers and starlets recount, often with amusement, the highs and lows of their associations with the company. The anecdotal stories are wonderful. They’re sometimes told from the view of a bookkeeper at the company’s office on London’s Wardour Street, sometimes from the memories of a beloved “Scream Queen” having been asked to wistfully emote beneath a leaking pipe at Bray Studios. (Bray Studios was, famously, a cramped Manor House on the Thames that had effectively served as Hammer’s principal soundstage). It’s to the filmmaker’s credit that alongside the insightful first-person remembrances offered by these genuine Hammer veterans, the documentary also skillfully gauges the studio’s influence on a generation of once young and up-and-coming filmmakers: directors John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Martin Scorsese are all on hand to pay respect and tribute.
It’s impossible to tell a half-century history in 99 or even 137 minutes but, to one degree or another, this seems to be the intent of the filmmakers. Though it was wise to not try and convey fifty-odd years of dry history chronologically – this film is primarily marketed to horror enthusiasts, after all – the chapters are unintentionally misleading. There is an obvious attempt to simplify the storytelling by giving the Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein franchises separate chapters. But as these two series mostly ran parallel to one another, timelines are sometimes fudged. If you’re not already somewhat familiar with the history of Hammer Studios such time-shifting and back-and-forthing can lead to confusion.
There’s also evidence of some padding, the producers perhaps turning too often to employ fair-use trailers as time filler. These segments only occasionally serve to prop up a comment or two and, more often than not, are distracting to the storytelling. It must also be said that in this new high-definition world some of the images – particularly those obviously shot on primitive video cameras at fan conventions – appear visually soft. Some segments appear as if they’ve been excerpted from third generation bootlegs. Taking off my critic’s hat for a moment, I do have to say it’s nonetheless wonderful to have all of these recorded reminisces gathered here together for posterity. If anything the interviews have even become more valuable with the passing of time. Of the thirty-odd filmmakers and actors who contributed comments to this project more than two decades ago, I’d venture a guess that only a half-dozen or so are still with us.
Obviously, if you are a fan of Hammer Studios product this documentary is indispensable. If you already have a copy of the 1999 VHS or 2004 DVD version, it’s still worthwhile - though arguably not essential – to double or triple dip for this expanded director’s cut. If you’re a Hammer fan who doesn’t already own a copy of the previous two editions, I wholeheartedly recommend acquiring this one. As the film’s subtitle implies, the documentary primarily focuses on the studio’s late 1950s through mid 1970s era when the company went full throttle into the production of horror and sci-fi/thriller associated titles.
Near the end of Flesh & Blood, the filmmaker’s note that the history and legacy of Hammer is still widely studied and celebrated worldwide, offering Richard Klemensen’s wonderful Little Shoppe of Horrorsmagazine as testimony to its popular-culture longevity. Though its publication schedule has been somewhat erratic over four plus decades, the magazine has nonetheless entered its forty-fourth year as the unchallenged and preeminent “Journal of Classic British Horror Films.” Recently published is LSOH #37 with an in depth celebration of Hammer’s The Lost Continent (1968). Also included are features and commentaries from Hammer producer Roy Skeggs, his secretary Kate Arnold, a retrospective of John Gilling’s Shadow of the Cat (1961), a “fanzine” feature on the mad world of the late Calvin Beck and his seminal Castle of Frankenstein magazine… Hell, there’s even a meticulously researched nine-page article on a film that was not made, Milton Subotsky’s Thongor in the Valley of Demons. As ever the glossy100 page magazine is crammed with original artwork, the rarest of production stills and storyboards, vintage news cuttings, interviews and commentaries by Hammer technicians and actors, book and DVD/Blu reviews, and – best of all, and as always - the best writing and research on all things British horror.
For information on ordering issue no. 37 of Little Shoppe of Horrors or back issues of the same, please visit: