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Book Review: 'The Hammer Vault' Is A Historically Rich Treasure Trove

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist December 21, 2011 at 6:46PM

When we reviewed the poster collection "The Art Of Hammer," an overview of the great British studio Hammer Films, we marveled over each slickly reproduced page. And while the experience was lovely (and lasted well beyond our time looking over and reviewing the book, it was about as superficial an experience as you could get.
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The Hammer Vault

When we reviewed the poster collection "The Art Of Hammer," an overview of the great British studio Hammer Films, we marveled over each slickly reproduced page. And while the experience was lovely (and lasted well beyond our time looking over and reviewing the book, if you factor in the countless hours we spent researching the availability of some of the posters), it was about as superficial an experience as you could get. The films were barely mentioned; it was all about the art. Now comes the surprisingly in-depth and gorgeous companion book, "The Hammer Vault: Treasures from the Archive of Hammer Films" by Marcus Hearn. If you have any ghoul or goblin who loves film or horror on your Christmas list, this is something that demands to be under the tree.

In the brief introduction, Hearn states that, "In the 1950s Hammer horror was the most terrifying experience the cinema had to offer…Hammer gilded this promise with a vast array of promotional material. This book assembles much of that material for the first time." So, already you're getting excited. Later in the same introduction, Hearn says, "This book does not aim to provide a complete history but to share the best of its archive on a film-by-film basis."

The thing is that the book is fairly exhaustive and these introductory notes sell it short. Firstly there is far more than mere promotional materials included in the book. This includes everything from Peter Cushing's personal watercolors of characters from "The Savage Jackboot" (the man can draw a beautiful, billowy Nazi); inter-office memos, like when studio bigwig James Carreras says of "The Day the Earth Cracked Open" (which was sold using pictures of topless women in front of savage monsters), "I don't think… it's very good…;" the cover from a tie-in version of Dennis Wheatley's "The Devil Rides Out" paperback novel that proclaimed "Now A Great Film" (it's not hyperbolic); and pages from Roy Ward Baker's "Scar of Dracula's" shooting schedule, weathered and yellowed by age.

This assorted miscellanea, most of it gaudy and oversized and fabulously colorful, would already have been met with a rapturous response from people like us, who want to live inside the dusty, sexy world of Hammer. But Hearn's text gives everything a wonderful through-line for all of the amazing photos and images, offering not only historical context and cultural insight, but after-the-fact critical analysis as well, as to where the movies fall in the Hammer Films canon.

Also: Hearn exhibits the dry wit and dark humor that the studio he's writing about was known for. "'The Lost Continent' was based on a 1938 novel that Dennis Wheatley reportedly couldn't remember writing," Hearn says, adding that by his estimation this fantastical tale "never in Hammer's history did a film fall so short of its story's potential." Elsewhere, he says, "[Distributors] Rank had been disappointed by the tame 'Countess Dracula,' but the next picture in their four-film deal would compensate for this with some of the most graphic violence ever seen in a Hammer horror." Amazing.

Given the limited amount of space on each page for the text, Hearn totally makes the most out of his short, punchy paragraphs. So much so that, even though the introduction says that it doesn't try to be a definitive text, if this is your first introduction to the world of Hammer films, you could probably still impress people at cocktail parties after you're done reading.

But, like the Hammer poster book, the images are the things that leave the biggest impression – goggle at the three Tom Chantrell paintings for "Creatures the World Forgot," each drastically different (with completely different typefaces) but all mesmerizing (especially the one with the topless lady – whoo-wee) or the pre-production artwork (also by the genius Chantrell) for "Hands of the Ripper" that features a busty, topless woman slicing the neck of another, similarly well-endowed topless woman. As if there was any doubt, in the bottom left corner of the "Hands of the Ripper" image are the words "This is a Hammer Film." As if there was any doubt.

For big Hammer nerds on this side of the pond, we are constantly reminded of how much we missed out on. A cover for "The House of Hammer" magazine (!), with an illustrated portrait of witch finder Peter Cushing, promises "an exciting eighteen page comic strip!" What was the comic strip of? One of the sexiest, funniest Hammer movies, "Twins of Evil." Above the cover is one panel from the comic, by Spanish artist Blas Gallego, that's as lush and vibrant as anything in the movie, even if it is in black-and-white. On the opposite page are contact sheets sent in by Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who appeared in Playboy and then, later, "Twins of Evil."

Each turn of the page uncovers some new treasure. One of the greatest things about the Hammer productions is the tactile nature of the films; there's the sense that you can reach out and touch it, feeling the wood grain on the faux Victorian sets (this is one of the reasons the recent Blu-ray of "Vampire Circus" was such a blast to re-watch). "The Hammer Vault" brings this sensation fully to life. You can practically smell the brittle script pages, the musty newspaper clippings, and the drippy contact sheets. What makes the images and text even more tantalizing is that, unlike the Hammer poster book, you can't find these things out in the real world. This is truly from the archive, capturing the brightest bits from the history of Hammer. But that won't keep us from trying to dig up one of the "I've been to a HorroRitual with Dracula" buttons that were distributed to audiences when the Christopher Lee-led "Dracula A.D. 1972" opened. Talk about treasure. [A]

This article is related to: Hammer Films, Reviews, Review


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