Interview: Author Marcus Hearn Cracks Open The Hammer Vault

To classic horror fans, the word “hammer” does not simply denote a tool or a now defunct 80s rapper, it is a six-letter seal of excellence. For years, Hammer Studios reached into the cache of our collective nightmares; resurrecting boogeymen theretofore romanticized in black and white and splashing them onto our eyes in savage, gorgeous technicolor. Their treatment of the likes Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s monster not only reacquainted us with monsters, but introduced us to silver screen legends such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. After experiencing a popularity that made them a powerhouse, the studio seemed to have whispered meekly out of existence after a short-lived television swan song in the 1980s. But now Hammer Studios is poised, like so many of its signature villains, to rise from the dead with several new films released in the last few years and others currently in production; the newest being the upcoming The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe.

In apparent celebration of this resurgence, the official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn has plundered the hallowed Hammer archives and come out with The Hammer Vault.” This book is an epic, glorious catalog of some of the studio’s greatest marketing materials, behind-the-scenes photos, film props, and other artifacts of enormous cinematic significance. It turns out the only thing that ever managed to rival the dark beauty and grandiose gothic tone of Hammer’s films was its marketing for those films. The book is an absolute triumph not only for fans of the classic studio, but also those who revel in pictorial film history. We were fortunate enough to sit down with good Mr. Hearn, a man worthy of knighthood in our humble, geeky estimation, to discuss the book. Not only does he lend even more insight into the Hammer archives, but also lets slip his opinions of the upcoming Woman in Black.

Grab your wooden stakes, unburden your bosom of those top blouse buttons, and prepare to take a perilous journey into “The Hammer Vault.”

As a huge fan of Hammer myself, I have to know, how did you rise to the ranks of official Hammer historian?

It all happened by accident really. I started working with Hammer in 1994, when I was an editor at Marvel Comics. I was given the job of editing Hammer’s official magazine, and this led to laserdisc commentaries, DVD commentaries and, most notably, the chance to write “The Hammer Story” with Alan Barnes. That book was the company’s authorized history, and it’s since led to “Hammer Glamour,” “The Art of Hammer” and now “The Hammer Vault.”

When you made the decision to take on this daunting project, what was your first step in acquiring all these incredible pieces?

Well I feel as if I’ve been rehearsing for this one since 1994. It’s the culmination of all my research into Hammer’s archive, although I’m also grateful to the private collectors who have helped to plug the gaps.

Despite being a Hammer historian, did it still give you chills to see and/or touch certain artifacts from the archives such as, say, Christopher Lee’s first Hammer contract for The Curse of Frankenstein?

Oh yes, of course. Hammer has preserved all its artist and writers’ contracts, and it’s astonishing to see how much (and how little!) some people were paid. These are the kinds of details that I wouldn’t feel comfortable about including in a book, even 50 years after the event, but I know that Christopher has never made a secret about what he earned for The Curse of Frankenstein so I hope he’s okay about me reproducing his contract for that film. I’m sure he earns a bit more nowadays!

In your opinion, what was it about Hammer’s advertising ideology that allowed them to stand apart even from other British studios or horror studios?

Hammer’s marketing campaigns were very aggressive and, unlike many of their contemporaries in the British film industry, were aimed at an international audience. This aligns them more closely with the James Bond films than the Carry Ons or the Ealing comedies.

In conducting your research, what were some facts you uncovered that genuinely surprised you?

Sometimes I unearthed things that I couldn’t include in the book because the illustrations or artifacts relating to the story weren’t in the archive. For example, in May 1958 the Blood Transfusion Service in England mounted an exhibition to coincide with the release of Dracula. They recruited quite a few volunteers as a result, but the exhibition was withdrawn after just one week on the grounds that it was in poor taste. I would love to find something relating to that exhibition, but sadly there’s nothing in the archive.

Were there any pieces that you uncovered in the archives that its administrators did not want featured in the book?

One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed working with Hammer so much is that they’re always been quite relaxed about criticism of the old films. When you’ve made more than 200 films, which they have, they know as well as I do that they can’t all be classics. So I feel as though I’ve got the best of both worlds with Hammer – access to some wonderful material, and relative freedom in the way I write about it.

I have to say, I love the photo from Nightmare of Clytie Jessop casually reading Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” on set with a prop knife stuck in her chest. Can you talk about some of your favorite candid photo discoveries?

There have now been so many books about Hammer that it’s getting quite difficult to come up with something unusual. Some of my favorites in The Hammer Vault include the shot of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with the Queen’s Award to Industry and Ursula Andress feeding the camel during the making of She, but really I like anything that tells a story from a behind the scenes point of view. I especially like the shot of Martine Beswick and Michael Carreras on the set of Slave Girls, and I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what they’re doing with that rhino horn.

Who is your favorite Hammer beauty?

I think I’d incriminate myself by answering that question. Most of the Hammer ladies I’ve met have been lovely, and some of them are beautiful people as well.

Can you explain for our American readers what a campaign book is and how a front of house still compares to the more commonly used lobby cards here in the states?

There are numerous examples of campaign books in The Hammer Vault. They were issued to cinema managers and publicists, and served as a guide to how to run a publicity campaign on a local level. As well as essential information they included ideas for publicity gimmicks and details of the posters and stills that could be purchased to decorate cinema foyers. Front of house stills are just like lobby cards, but smaller.

Something I’ve always wondered, why are British quads so named and what was the reasoning behind their being horizontal where American posters are traditionally vertical?

Quad is short for Quad Crown, and to be honest I don’t know why we went for the landscape format in the UK while in the US you’ve generally preferred the portrait one-sheet format. It’s still the same today.

Something I’ve always enjoyed on a base level is Hammer’s use of cleavage in their posters. However, I know the studio drew quite a bit of ire from critics over this. In your view, was there ever a point wherein Hammer’s utilization of ample bosoms in their advertising began to go a bit too far? If so, to you, which film’s marketing represents their first steps over the line?

I don’t think any of the published posters crossed the line, but in the book you’ll see several examples of pre-production posters – created purely to entice potential distributors – that are quite explicit in the way they mix sex and violence. Hands of the Ripper is one example of an illustration that would not be considered acceptable on a publicly exhibited poster, even today.

Why do you think contemporary film marketing in general has lost the grandeur and artistry that once characterized it?

The advent of Photoshop spelled the demise of the painted film poster, and as much as I love Photoshop I think that’s a great shame. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg still commission painted film posters, and Hammer has just commissioned one for their next film, The Woman in Black, but it’s very rare these days.

Obviously Hammer has a special meaning for you, can you tell us about your first experience with the studio?

I’m too young to have seen the original films at the cinema. My introduction to Hammer was through late night double-bills on the British television channel BBC2. I think many fans of classic horror in this country fondly recall those double-bills, which were a crash course in Hammer, Universal, Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur and so on. These days it’s increasingly rare to see any black and white films on network television.

What are your favorite Hammer films?

My favorite Gothic horror is The Brides of Dracula, my favorite science fiction film is Quatermass 2 and my favorite thriller is Cash On Demand.

Have you been fortunate enough to meet any of the Hammer legends?

I didn’t meet Peter Cushing, sadly, but we corresponded when I was a teenager. I got to know Christopher quite well. In fact I published his authorized biography about ten years ago.

What are your thoughts on the resurgence of Hammer and their stylish new onscreen logo?

I’m delighted that Hammer is back, because the films they’re making are so good. The next one, The Woman in Black, is the best yet. For those who haven’t seen it, the animated logo comprises images from classic posters which solidify into the word ‘Hammer.’ For an old timer like me, seeing that on the big screen is genuinely thrilling.

Buy “The Hammer Vault” over at Amazon

Brian Salisbury has been a film critic and internet gadfly for six years. He is the co-host of FSR's Junkfood Cinema podcast and the co-founder of OneOfUs.Net. Brian is a cult film and exploitation buff who loves everything from Charlie Chaplin to Charlie Bronson.

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