Critic drops the Hammer and talks horror

by Mark Burger

For fans of film fear, Hammer Films needs little introduction. The British studio released a series of profitable shockers, many in the Gothic horror tradition, from the 1950s until the ’70s, when modern horror films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, et al) became the rage.

Hammer basically ceased to exist as a production entity for the better part of 30 years, although under new ownership the banner has been revived (Let Me In and The Woman in Black are recent Hammer releases). To this day, entire magazines and websites are devoted to Hammer Films, and its worldwide legion of fans includes many who weren’t even born during the studio’s heyday. Recent DVD and/or Blu-ray releases of The Vampire Lovers (1970) from Scream Factory/Shout! Factory and Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper (both 1971) from Synapse Films attest to Hammer’s lasting popularity. (For a review of the Twins of Evil DVD.

For over 50 years, Kevin Thomas was a film critic at the Los Angeles Times — a record unlikely to be surpassed. Kevin, a great friend of this writer, has reviewed countless films, including a wide selection of foreign, independent and B-movies — enough to be awarded as “Film Critic of the Century” by Cult Movies Magazine (“But they didn’t say which century,” he jokes). It was therefore inevitable that Hammer came Kevin’s way during his years at the Times.

“They were assignments,” emphasizes Kevin, who prefers film noir and French new wave to sci-fi and horror. Nevertheless, he often had kind words to say about Hammer’s output, including The Vampire Lovers (“An excellent horror film.

A rare and pleasurable experience done with intelligence and taste”), the 1971 twin-bill of Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper (“[A]mong the most sophisticated horror pictures ever produced by England’s Hammer Films.

They both possess the kind of bravura style that should make them appealing to film buffs”), and the much-debated and oft-maligned Dracula AD 1972 (“[A] witty and successful attempt to bring the old Transylvanian vampire into present-day London”).

Of course, not every Hammer film received a rave, but having sat through his fair (and unfair) share of grade-Z schlock over the years, he admits that a Hammer assignment usually held some promise.

“I do think Hammer films did have an energy to them and a total lack of pretension. They had good craftsmanship and good production values for the money spent. They knew what they were doing. I’m no expert, but most of the time I enjoyed them. Not that I would have run out to see them, but most were enjoyable.”

In addition to the period detail, Kevin tended also to enjoy the actors in Hammer films, and no two were more closely associated with the studio than Peter Cushing (the definitive Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (the definitive Count Dracula).

“Of course, they’re great. They always bring something to the party.”

Kevin never met Cushing but encountered Lee twice, the first time on a promotional tour for Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which he played Mycroft Holmes. The 1970 film, which was heavily edited prior to release, was neither a hit with audiences or critics but has since undergone a positive critical reappraisal.

“He was extremely excited about the film,” Kevin recalls, “but he was very uptight, unbelievably uptight. He was a perfect gentleman… but incredibly uncomfortable doing the interview.”

Some years later, during which time Lee had moved to Los Angeles, Kevin was re-introduced to him at a Hollywood party and the two got to talking. “He was a different person — very relaxed and charming.”

Therefore, he asked the actor if he recalled their earlier meeting and Lee laughed at the memory.

Not unlike when Sean Connery abdicated the James Bond franchise, there was an uproar in certain quarters about Lee hanging up the Dracula cape to pursue more varied roles. “He’d just been burned in the British press… they’d given him a hard time,” relates Kevin.

“I was very gratified because I’ve always respected him. His autobiography (Tall, Dark and Gruesome) is one of the best movie-star memoirs I’ve ever read. He’s led such a fascinating life both onand off-camera.”

In 2009, at age 87, Lee was knighted — “Took ‘em long enough!” quips Kevin — and at age 91 continues to work, having appeared in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit in 2012. “More power to him,” Kevin says. “He was a fine Dracula and he’s a fine actor, and my God he’s tall!”