Hammer-Time

I think it’s fitting that, for its resurrection from the dead, Hammer Films chose a tale concerning resurrections from the dead–for three days anyway. But when one pair of grieving parents chooses to disregard the rules, their angel turns into a demon dedicated to the destruction of anyone who attempts to send her back. The film was “Wake Wood” and it served as a template for the new Hammer. It was cast with seasoned professionals, but none of them stars, and none of them especially linked to the horror genre. It was based on a pre-existing literary source, and there was no “home studio” involved. As one might expect from a start-up operation, there were various sources of funding. “Exclusive” was the Hammer brand-name in the old days and it was resurrected just like little Alice. The film was presented as a production of Exclusive/Vertigo Films. And it was at least partially filmed abroad with Tomellia, Sweden standing in for rural Britain. “Wake Wood” was a very well-made zombie film with the cast radiating enough sincerity to bring the rather improbable tale off in fine style. Ella Connolly was especially effective as the resurrected child. “Wake Wood” was released in 2010.

For the following year’s offering, “The Resident,” Hammer chose a different tact. This would be a pure psychological thriller–and we recall that Hammer made their share of those in the old days. It would also mark the return of Christopher Lee to Hammer, albeit in what amounted to little more than a cameo as the disturbed hero Max’s threatening but bedridden grandfather. Hammer got a real star for this one–Hilary Swank, who also served as a co-producer. But the tale never quite came together with the production design of the once-grand, now crumbling apartment house outshining the actors. Sadly, Lee was wasted in his return to Hammer and for a moment things weren’t looking so rosy. The film carried the production label “Exclusive/Hammer,” with the illustrious name emerging from the outer darkness for the first time–pity it didn’t grace a worthier effort. Despite its supposedly being set in Brooklyn, New York, “The Resident” was actually filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico!

Hammer stayed in Albuquerque for their next outing–and their first new masterpiece–“Let Me In.” Although this film appeared after “The Resident,” it was apparently filmed before it. “Let Me In” is a wonderful piece of work–a modern-day vampire film that carries a sad, gothic chill at its heart. Chloe Grace Moritz gave a magical performance as Abby who has been fifteen for a very long time. Kodi Smith-McPhee matches her as the bullied, alienated boy who will become her new protector, and Richard Jenkins plays “Father,” revealed to be another boy who once fell under Abby’s spell, but has not remained fifteen forever. “Let Me In” was based upon a popular Swedish horror novel, blending vampires and zombies–which Hammer’s film does not–and the novel itself had already been filmed in Sweden as “Let the Right One In.” But Hammer’s version avoided looking like a by-the-numbers re-do. It was very much it’s own film, and I frankly prefer it to the Swedish version. The consortium Overture/Exclusive/Hammer took the well-deserved credit for the first real gem of the new Hammer Films. Call it their “Horror of Dracula.”

“The Woman in Black” (Cross Creek Pictures/Hammer Film Productions/Alliance Films) appeared in 2012. It was based on a trifecta of successes–Susan Hill’s modern Gothic novel, a long-running stage-play based upon the same, and a haunting BBC-TV version of the novel scripted by Nigel Kneale. For extra insurance the cast was headed up by the popular young actor Daniel Radcliffe, famous for the “Harry Potter” films and now advertised as playing his first adult role. The film itself garnered praise for marking Hammer’s return to the costume gothics that made their reputation. It was filmed in Essex and it is a lush and haunting production. And yes, The Woman in Black is one nasty exorcism-proof specter. I have to admit that I prefer the Kneale version of the script for two reasons–it gave a voice to the dead Mrs. Drablow via the recording cylinders that she left, and the ending was less equivocal and more chilling. But the film was still a very good effort from Hammer and is probably the most subtle ghost story that we’re likely to see for some time to come. Thus far it is Hammer’s only return to the world of Gothic horror.

Hammer’s next film was “The Quiet Ones” (Exclusive/Hammer/Travelling Picture Show, 2014) an interesting mash-up of paranormal investigation, devil-worship and madness. As with “The Woman in Black” and “The Resident,” Hammer’s design team managed to create one very creepy-looking Old Dark House for the action to play itself out in. (It was filmed in Oxfordshire.) Again there was a very good cast of professionals, but no stars. It seems that the new Hammer has no interest in discovering the next Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. Thus far, they don’t even have a “house director” like Terence Fisher. Instead each of the six Hammers released in the U.S. thus far had a different director and different script-writers.

Since this piece was originally written, Hammer has released their first sequel-film. “Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” (Relativity Media/Hammer Films/Entertainment One, 2014) isn’t bad as sequels go. It doesn’t improve upon the original because this time there is a group of intruders in Eel Marsh House rather than just one intrepid soul. The production values were up to Hammer’s usual standards, and the original story was by Susan Hill, author of the source novel for both films. The vengeful ghost is used more sparingly in the sequel and, while most sequels will try to up the body-count, “Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” actually lowers it with only three fatalities. Either Hill or scriptwriter Jon Croker picked up on Nigel Kneale’s fine idea by having an antique Dictaphone discovered with cylinders in which the voice of Alice Drablow recounts the dreadful events that gave rise to the Woman in Black’s curse. Incidentally the curse seems to have worked, for having eliminated its children, the village of Cryphin Gifford is now a veritable ghost town–which leads one to wonder why the defense ministry would consider it an ideal spot in which to evacuate already-traumatized children. The Woman finally meets her match here in a young schoolteacher who underwent the identical trauma of giving birth out-of-wedlock and having the child taken from her. When the Woman casts her baleful spell over a mute boy who the teacher has grown especially fond of, the battle is joined between these two mothers cheated of their sons–the one living, the other long dead. This time out the story appears to end well with the teacher snatching the boy back from a watery death and the apparent sacrifice of her lover’s life seeming to finally assuage the vengeful spirit. So, for the first time since “The Resident” we have a Hammer film with a relatively happy ending.

Back in the 1980s when the television anthology series “Hammer House of Horror” was being aired, I noticed a pronounced shift away from the more conservative ethos that had governed their classic films. In the various episodes of this series Good did not necessarily triumph over Evil and most of the episodes had decidedly downbeat finales. Aside from “The Woman in Black 2” and “The Resident,” by far the weakest of the films offered by the new Hammer, this trend has continued. (In “Let Me In” it can be argued that there is a happy resolution in that the vampire does free the boy from his potentially homicidal tormentors–but at a cost. He will now replace the dead “Father” and in time will age into “Father” himself, and when his hunting skills start to fail him, and he starts to become sloppy, he will become expendable just as “Father” was.)

The new Hammer is also far less rationalistic. There is no Van Helsing to oppose Abby in “Let Me In.” The hoped-for propitiation of The Woman in Black proves to be illusory in the first instance and only a hope in the second, and the paranormal forces at work fail to respond to controlled experimentation in “The Quiet Ones.” In the Brave New World of the New Hammer darkness reigns, madness defeats rationality and things don’t always end as we might wish them to. It will certainly be interesting to see what Hammer has up its sleeve next. Before “Wake Wood” and “The Resident” appeared there were all sorts of rumors that Hammer would be re-making its hits from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. I’m happy to say that thus far this hasn’t proven to be the case. True both “Let Me In” and “The Woman in Black” were remakes, but not of Hammer properties. Taken as the group, the new Hammers have proven to be a delightfully willful bunch, each one going its own way and that’s a very good sign. Yes, folks, they’re back–it’s Hammer Time again!

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