Number 13: Hammer House of Horror
‘Hammer House of Horror’ is a one season, anthology horror show broadcast at the very birth of the Eighties; each week would see an hour long mini-movie covering such diverse genre topics as ghostly presences, werewolves, ancient witches, Satanism, cannibalism and the grisly works of a serial killer.
By the end of the Seventies, the once-great British horror studio Hammer Films was in sharp decline. At a time when the genre was ruled by the sudden explosion of American horror, and bona-fide horror classics were a seemingly monthly occurrence – George A. Romero’s superlative ‘Dawn of the Dead’, Carpenter’s iconic ‘Halloween’, Ridley Scott’s terrifying ‘Alien’, Ferrara’s ‘Driller Killer’, Coscarelli’s ‘Phantasm’, as well as ‘The Amityville Horror’, ‘Zombie Holocaust’, ‘Tourist Trap’, ‘I Spit on Your Grave’, ‘Long Weekend’, and ‘Piranha’ were all released in the last two years of the decade – public taste had changed unrecognisably. Struggling to move with the times and seemingly hell-bent on continuing with its traditional Gothic productions, Hammer’s finances grew rapidly untenable. Trying to find an inexpensive way of returning the brand to profitability, ‘Hammer House of Horror’ was conceived; using their familiar improvisational approach to filmmaking, the studio would produce a series of short films, direct to TV, that stuck closely to the format of its classics. Well received in the UK and syndicated to the US, it enabled Hammer to continue; when they tried to repeat the trick with the more abstract ‘Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense’ in the mid-Eighties, they found their audience had dwindled completely, the show tanked, and the studio disappeared, until being reborn as a producer of feature films in recent years.
The series sticks to the formula that made the studio great; small, character driven pieces with a distinctly horror bent. Each episode was edited, rather severely in some cases in the US, for both blood and nudity although by modern standards, and those of several other shows on this list, it is now comparatively very tame. Each also has a rather histrionic tone, another calling card of Hammer Films, but somehow this translates well to the small screen; certainly it is far more tolerable here than in some of the studio’s later cinematic efforts. With a new story each week, there was no overarching theme, and the cast changed accordingly. Within the confines of the melodrama, there are many ripe, if entertaining performances, and Hammer wisely called in a number of recognisable faces, not least that of studio stalwart Peter Cushing in one of the series’ standout episodes ‘The Silent Scream’, in which he plays a mysterious German. Other notable appearances include: Denholm Elliot as a man haunted by prophetic dreams in ‘Rude Awakening’; Barbara Kellerman as a woman grieving the death of her child in ‘Growing Pains’; Diana Dors as a mysterious Hungarian nanny in ‘Children of the Full Moon’; and a minor role for a very fresh-faced Pierce Brosnan in ‘Carpathian Eagle’. This is just a flavour of the bounty of recognisable faces that crop up over the course of the series; the full cast list is a who’s who of recognisable English actors from the period, with the occasional superstar tossed in for good measure.
The continued success and fondness for ‘Hammer House of Horror’ is almost a happy accident; the same self-reverential approach that effectively sank the studio in the Eighties has had the fortunate effect of the episodes aging rather well. There are some dull notes in the series – some of the more ‘out there’ episodes garner more humorous responses than they ever intended, especially the very odd ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ – but, equally, there are some excellent tales too. ‘The Two Faces of Evil’, a typically Hammer-style study in a woman’s madness, is great and benefits from solid performances by Anna Calder-Marshall and Gary Raymond; ‘Visitor from the Grave’ is an uncharacteristically bleak episode, charting the murder of a rapist and his subsequent return from the grave; ‘The Mark of Satan’, a series highlight, in which a young boy is recruited by Satan is excellent; and the best episode is, without doubt, ‘The House that Bled to Death’, an interesting twist on the haunted house trope.
‘Hammer House of Horror’ ran for one season, with an appropriately numbered thirteen episodes, and was a much needed hit for the studio. For the modern fan there is much still here to enjoy too; in fact, the series stands out as the highlight of an otherwise very inconsistent latter catalogue. For those brought up with Hammer movies, each episode has a nostalgic quality, instantly familiar in tone, pace, and style, and is all the better for it. For more modern audiences, whilst there is no doubt that it is very much of its time, it is easy to recommend. Stuffed with both homages to classic and contemporary movies, and with a cast and crew composed of Seventies British genre glitterati, it is a show any self-respecting horror fan should see. Moreover, it is a historical document of sorts, the show that prolonged one of horror’s more respected and talented early studios, and plays out like a greatest hits of Hammer.