This past weekend’s premiere of “The Woman In Black” marks the return of famous British studio Hammer Films to the world of horror movies — a genre the studio helped define during the 1950s, and then throughout the ’60s and beyond.
While “Harry Potter” franchise star Daniel Radcliffe stars in the terrifying new film by Hammer, the studio has played a role in launching the careers of many notable actors over the years, especially those of award-winning cinema veterans Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Whether the studio was tackling well-known characters like Dracula and Frankenstein or putting their own spin on lesser-known objects of terror, Hammer Films built a legacy out of pushing the boundaries and giving theater audiences nightmares.
Earlier this month, we took a look through the Hammer Films archive via the recently released book Inside the Hammer Vault, and now that “The Woman In Black” is finally hitting screens, it seems like a good time to list the five films everyone who wants to know what all the fuss is about should see.
“Horror of Dracula” (1958)
Considered by many to be the best film ever made by Hammer Films, this was the project that made household names of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In the film, Lee plays the lord of the vampires, who decides to leave Transylvania for England and proceeds to bite, stab, and rip a bloody path through England’s nightlife. Cushing plays Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing, kicking off an on-screen pairing that would persist throughout many more Hammer Films projects. While other vampire movies portrayed Dracula as a subtle, seductive villain, this film was one of the first to present the Prince of Darkness as a ferocious, demonic force of otherworldly nature. “Horror of Dracula” is widely considered must-see material for horror movie fans, so if you haven’t watched it yet, do so.
“The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957)
One of the first breakout movies for Hammer Films on both sides of the Atlantic, “The Curse of Frankenstein” was also one of the first pairings of Hammer’s celebrated duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In the film, Cushing plays Victor Frankenstein so memorably that many consider this the character-defining portrayal of the the mad scientist. Meanwhile, Lee’s debut as Frankenstein’s monster will likely surprise modern audiences with how graphic it was for the time. While often overshadowed by Boris Karlof’s lumbering take on the creature, Lee’s version of the sewn-together monster will give you nightmares even today.
“The Gorgon” (1964)
Yet another pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing with “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula” director Terence Fisher, this film diverged from the classic Universal Monsters fare by featuring an unlikely villain: a snake-haired woman whose gaze turns subjects to stone. Barbara Shelley plays the title character to terrifying perfection, while Lee and Cushing put in the now-expected amazing performances. without revealing any spoilers, the film also features one of the most bleak endings you’ll ever see in a film.
“The Plague of the Zombies” (1966)
Several years before George Romero put his stamp on zombie cinema, Hammer Films released this bizarre film that clearly influenced the work of Romero and many subsequent undead-friendly filmmakers. Rather than present the zombies as barely moving, minimal threats, “The Plague of Zombies” had them chasing down victims and wreaking some serious havoc on the living. While the notion of brain-munching hadn’t entered the zombie scene yet, director John Gilling took big steps in this film toward making the cinematic version of zombies closer to what it is today.
“The Curse of the Werewolf” (1961)
In this often overlooked film, award-winning British actor Oliver Reed played one of the most tragic incarnations of the Wolfman ever brought to the screen. “The Curse of the Werewolf” unfolds after a jailed, bestial beggar rapes a mute servant girl, who then gives birth to the lycanthropic title character, played by Reed. It’s one of the more disturbing entries in the werewolf genre, and the first and only Hammer Films project that deals with werewolf lore. As Reed’s character struggles to deal with his curse and hopes to find an end to it through true love, the audience is carried along on an adventure filled with impressive highs and terrifying lows. Not only is the film filled with excellent performances by all involved, but the makeup effects on Reed are years ahead of their time.