The discussion of Hammer’s place in the horror genre often disguises that fact that in its very earliest form the first Hammer Film production was actually released as early as July 1935. This was the title Mystery of The Mary Celeste starring the great Bela Lugosi. Despite the events of WW2 forcing Hammer Film Productions to reform the studio had a significant further history of non-horror output due to subsequent films from the late 1940’s that were called ‘quota quickies’. These included shorts like Crime Reporter and Who Killed Van Loon. Their first foray into science fiction horror was with The Quatermass Experiment in 1955 as a result of studio founder; William Hinds clever acquisition of the highly successful British TV series of the same name.
Yet Hammer is mentioned to a genre fan then many will likely immediately think of the iconic Peter Cushing in the excellent Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and its sequels or Christopher Lee and Cushing in Dracula (1958). Though this is understandable, since it was undeniably a global phenomenon for Hammer and the origin for the cycle of gothic pictures that put Hammer on the horror map and ensured its distinguished place in the genre’s history. Running alongside these Gothic pictures however were their own contemporary forms of more psychological suspense during the 1960’s called ‘Pyscho-Thrillers’, due to the influence of the success of Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960). Admittedly the majority do not have the same impact as their more classic horror pictures but a few are certainly worth a watch for any dedicated horror fan. Freddie Francis who directed several of these films was, for example the cinematographer on the genre classic The Innocents (1961), so this at least should give an indication to the degree of their quality. In addition the screenwriter for many of these ‘Psycho-Thrillers’ was the same individual also wrote Curse of Frankenstein.
Scream of Fear (1961) – Alt Title: Taste of Fear
Seth Holt was at the helm of this impressive effort – and this horror fan’s personal favourite of the bunch – that conveys a pervasive air of paranoia, suspense and mystery throughout. Gorgeous monochrome photography by Douglas Slocombe (later involved in the Indiana Jones trilogy for Steven Spielberg) greatly benefits the picture. Furthermore it features perhaps the strongest performance in perhaps of all of the films on this list from Susan Strasberg as the central female character Penny Appleby. She is also supported also by a fine co-performance by Christopher Lee. The film’s script by Jimmy Sangster – originally entitled ‘See No Evil’ – also presents the audience with several effective twists at its conclusion. It also prevents the narrative throughout from predictability despite the clear influence of french horror Les Diabloques (1955) in several sequences. To a horror fan, like me, who had not seen Les Diabloques previously this was still a very enjoyable and effective psychological thriller that ranks for me among the best of Hammer’s output during the 1960’s across all sub-genres. According to a quote by Christopher Lee himself it would seem he concurs, stating this was among his fine roles he undertook at Hammer studios.
After Oliver Reed played Leon Corledo, the tormented individual in Hammer’s only werewolf film, 1961’s excellent Curse of the Werewolf (1961,) he continued his early career with Hammer films in the horror genre with Paranoiac. This was Hammers own adaption of Josephine Tey’s novel Brat Farrar. Although Jimmy Sangter’s script is clearly influenced by Pyscho here as we see in twists within the films own narrative the studio had actually acquired the rights to the novel ten years earlier, with the film in fluxing stages of development since. Oliver Reed himself gives a very powerful performance as our main character Simon Ashby. He is supported well by Jimmy Sangster’s script while Freddie Francis direction is benefitted by elegant cinematography by Arthur Grant.
Another film directed by Freddie Frances with John Wilcox this time as cinematographer. Interestingly it stars Brenda Bruce, who appeared as the first victim of Mark Lewis in the pre-credits sequence of Peeping Tom (1960), as a teacher to our main character Janet. In terms of narrative devices (and indeed the title) this has perhaps the most similarity to Pyscho. It does however also display parallels to the Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight which already had two films to its name. These elements along with its inferior script perhaps make it, among this series of films, one of the weakest but other aspects such as the presence of another accomplished actress; Moira Redmond in supporting roles and her strong performance make it worth a watch.
The Nanny (1965)
Bette Davies is the Nanny in this title which is directed by Scream of Fear’s Seth Holt. Though she starred in the more famous psychological thriller Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) this is claimed by some critic’s to supersede the sinister atmosphere of the aforementioned title with its own air of nuanced suspense. Bette Davies also at least equals her performance here to that in the aforementioned title. In essence it is a examination of grief in a family unit and its relation to the sinister motives of the families child. To this degree the development of the narrative within the film draws parallels with earlier depictions of childhood in horror cinema such as the adaption of the William Marsch novel The Bad Seed 11 years previously. Much like that film, Holst’s approach to Jimmy Francis’s screenplay is subtle and nuanced in regards to films various elements. The result is equally effective as this direction contrasts with the film’s quite dark and challenging themes. Judging by the result Holt seems to have realised you don’t need explicit imagery to achieve the desired effect as he builds an atmosphere of dread. To this degree the film at times recalls the most disturbing and effective scenes that come near the conclusion of The Bad Seed (1956).