Laura Mayne (@LauraJaneMayne)
Earlier this month I was privileged to attend a three-day international conference on Hammer films which took place in Paris between 10-12 June. This event was organised by Giles Menegaldo (Emeritus Professor at the University of Poitiers) Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (Paris West University) and Melanie Boissonneau (post-doctoral researcher at New Sorbonne University). The conference (program here) brought together papers by scholars from universities around the world, showcasing the range of research being done on Hammer horror films, the studio’s history and its place in British (and global) horror cinema.
Disclaimer: any report on a conference where there are multiple panels must necessarily be patchy, but this will be even even more so, as I only managed to catch the last two days of the conference, and even then only the panels which were in English (because, much as I wished to test the limits of my GCSE French, I did not trust it). So, this post is less a report and more a series of highlights which stood out to me in the context of the 1960s Project, and as such I do apologise to the many presenters I will fail to mention!
Thursday morning’s keynote was delivered by Jean-François Baillon, Professor in English and Film Studies at Bordeaux Montaigne University. Professor Baillon’s paper ‘Hammer Motel: Twisted Nerves and Twisted Plots in the post-Psycho British psycho-thriller’ examined Hammer’s psycho-thriller output. This cycle of films has been marginalised in scholarship, perhaps because they seem so un-Hammer-like: unlike the studio’s horror output they were shot in black and white until 1965. They also tended not to feature a cast and crew of regular actors technicians in the same way as the Dracula or Frankenstein films had, and appealed far more to the European rather than the American market. Baillon argued that this cycle of films fed into an increasing postmodern tendency in the cinema of the 1960s, with reference to the ways that, for example, Val Guest’s The Full Treatment (1960) and and Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear (1961) seem to self-consciously reference the Hitchcock canon. It was also refreshing to see a reappraisal of Hammer’s seldom-referenced psychological thrillers like The Maniac and Paranoiac (1963).
Phillipe Met from the University of Pennsylvania talked about the representation of children in Hammer films like The Damned (1963), Vampire Circus (1972) and even a few episodes of the 1980 TV series Hammer House of Horror. Specifically, the focus here was on the discrepancy between sound and image with regard to the presence of children in Hammer films, and the ways in which aurality is often substituted for presence. Dorota Babilas of the University of Warsaw talked about Hammer’s 1962 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, a film which she described as a ‘missed opportunity and artistic failure’. Babilas discussed the representation of Victorian gothic in the film, and also compared the sympathetic figure of The Phantom (played by Herbert Lom) to earlier filmic adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s original novel.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) figured largely in the conference schedule as the first Hammer horror shot in colour and the film which spawned the company’s gothic horror cycles. Jean Marie Lecomte (Université de Lorraine) talked about the monster as filmic artefact in The Curse of Frankenstein in an engaging paper which he framed with the question ‘Do you believe in the monster?’ Lecomte talked about the ways in which the monster is constructed, denied and left ambiguous in the film, and often exists as an off-screen presence. The paper also focused on symbolic and ideological representations of the monster throughout the ages, and the ways in which it has been constructed as a social and cultural (as well as biological) abomination.
Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard (University of Toulouse II) also talked about Curse in terms of Hammer’s shift from black and white to colour. The film is often seen as a novelty, though by the film’s release in 1957 colour had existed in British cinema for over a decade. Hammer preferred to use Eastmancolor in their films (a system which was seen as being cheaper and more vulgar than Technicolor). De Beauregard applied the theories of legendary Hollywood colour supervisor Nathalie Kalmus to Curse, focusing on the ways in which colour is used in the film to express energy and movement.
(Note: on the Thursday afternoon, something of a pall was cast over the conference with the announcement of the death of Sir Christopher Lee, a central figure in the history of Hammer horror. A tribute to the life of the actor by the delegates from De Montfort University can be found here)
Moving away from the Dracula and Frankenstein cycles, Rehan Hyder’s work focused on representations of the Thugee in Terence Fisher’s The Stranglers of Bombay (1959). Hyder framed the extremely problematic history of the Thugee as constructed in British colonial culture, applying aspects of post-colonial theory to Stranglers to discuss how the Thugee as foreign ‘other’ plays on the fears and prejudices of a (predominantly white British) audience.
Hyder’s work went together very well with Ruth Heholt’s paper, titled ‘The Hammer House of Cornish Horror’, which looked at the ways in which Cornwall is depicted as a foreign landscape in The Plague of Zombies and The Reptile (1966). Heyholt argued that in these films Cornwall is depicted as the rural ‘other’ within England, with certain scenes (the underground zombie mines in Plague) hinting at an ancient and inscrutable culture lurking beneath the surface of the landscape.
Robert Simpson delivered a fascinating insight into Hammer’s early history with ‘261 Goldhawk Road: William Hinds and the Birth of Hammer Films’. Drawing on a wide range of archival research, his focus was on the very early years of the company and the importance of its founder William Hinds (stage name Will Hammer) to its identity, and to the eventual ‘Hammer’ branding. This historical focus continued into the final day of the conference with papers from Steve Chibnall, Ian Hunter and Matthew Jones of DeMontfort University.
With his paper ‘Hammer and the Re-mapping of British Cinema History’ Ian Hunter positioned scholarship on Hammer in relation to British cinema history as a whole, charting the historical turn in film studies from the mid-1980s and the ongoing revisionism of film history in terms of competing meanings of the ‘national’ and changing methods of research into commercial exploitation, cinemagoing and the place of cinema in social and cultural life. Following on from this, Matthew Jones really captured the ways in which archival research can be investigative in nature, with his paper on the discovery of the unmade script for The Day The Earth Caught Fire, which was mooted as a co-production between Hammer and 20th Century Fox in the mid-1990s.
Steve Chibnall showcased the range of work being done at De Montfort, which is home to the Cinema and Television History Research Centre (CATH) a research network with a wide cross-disciplinary membership across a number of Higher Education (and non-Higher Education) institutions. De Montfort have also recently acquired the Hammer Script Archive as well as the papers of a number of important (but neglected) figures in British cinema history like like Roy Ward Baker and Francis Searle. More information on the centre and the Hammer Script Archive can be found here.
In terms of work on British cinema one might be fooled into thinking that Hammer is, in some respects, an already creaking cart. However, if anything, this conference has shown that there is still a lot of exciting work being done (and more to come in the future).