The Horror of It All: Dynamics of Class and Power in the Hammer Gothics
The Hammer House of Horror, maker of quintessentially English gothic horror films, was dominated by two dashing aristocrats: Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula. They terrorised lower-class rustic communities, but their heroic pursuers -- as well as the particular group of victims whom we are made to care most about-- were middle-class, treading a noble path midway between what the films portrayed as the ignorance and ignobility of the working classes and the unfettered craving for power of the upper class. These dynamics provided the general contours for Hammer films time and again throughout the studio's truly 'classic' period, which I shall (perhaps to the annoyance of some aficionados) place roughly from The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 to Taste the Blood of Dracula in 1969.
The monsters unmasked: Hammer's upper class
The lure of wealth and power is what makes Hammer's upper class so attractive and yet so destructive. For Terence Fisher, whose vision influenced the structure of Hammer's world more than that of any other director, the face of evil was not repulsive, but handsome (what his biographer Winston Wheeler-Dixon called 'The Charm of Evil'). Who better, then, to function as Hammer's most venomous villains than those with riches and prestige? They were rarely more alluring than Christopher Lee's Count Dracula. Charming, suave and elegant, yet harbouring demonic, oppressive forces, he epitomised the aristocracy of the Hammer universe.
He was preceded, however, by Hammer's archetypal aristocrat, Peter Cushing's nefarious Baron Frankenstein. Whereas Universal's Frankenstein in the 1930s had been a basically good character, albeit misguided, Cushing's Frankenstein was essentially quite villainous. Certainly there was some ambiguity --he occasionally showed some desire to help humanity and was rarely totally without charm and wit-- but ultimately he was selfish and murderous, unashamedly exploiting others for the sake of his work. In the seminal The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), for example, the Baron does not hesitate to abandon his lover, a servant girl (Valerie Gaunt) to the mercy of his creature (Christopher Lee) who murders her.
In later Frankenstein films, the monsters are victims either of the Baron's selfishness (Michael Gwynne's affecting creature in the 1958 The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Freddie Jones's monster in the 1969 Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) or of the sins of other aristocrats (the callous high-society fops in 1967's Frankenstein Created Woman). The social dynamics of the world of the Frankenstein series are just the genesis of a recurring theme in Hammer horror: the identification of the aristocracy as the creators of monsters. In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), the eponymous canine appears to be the monster, but the curse itself can be traced back to the ogreish and sadistic Sir Hugo Baskerville. It is his cruelty towards his working-class victims that leads to his death on the moor at the claws of the much-feared Hound. The Marquess (Anthony Dawson) in 1960's The Curse of the Werewolf is virtually a reincarnation of Sir Hugo, for he is also a tyrant over the lower classes, whom he exploits for his own entertainment. It is the Marquess's inhuman treatment of beggar Richard Wordsworth that turns an otherwise sympathetic character into a feral creature capable of acts of cruelty. In the same vein, Herbert Lom's Professor Petrie in The Phantom of the Opera (1962) may murder and terrorise, but we are meant to see him as the victim. He is driven to despair by the real monster, Lord Ambrose d'Arcy (Michael Gough), the slimy and tyrannical aristocrat who stole his life's work.
Don Sharp's masterful Hitchcockian chiller The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) presents us with an aristocracy that poisons the rest of society. The vampire cult headed by Dr Ravna (Noel Willman) is outrageously decadent, representative of what Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) derisively calls "the so-called smart set". They are also purveyors of disease; the Professor reveals that his late daughter, Ravna's victim, returned from the cult "riddled with disease", and a vampire herself. The notion of the upper classes as the carriers of an "infection" (as David Pyrie describes it) into society is later crystallised in the two films that John Gilling made back-to-back for Hammer in late 1965: The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. Both films portray the ruling class primarily as oppressive rulers, with significant colonialist overtones. The stories concern aristocrats who invite a foreign menace into their communities by meddling in the cultures of other countries. In Plague, Squire Hamilton (John Carson) picks up voodoo rituals from the West Indies and uses them to create zombies, whom he exploits as workers in his mine. In The Reptile, Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) interferes with a snake-worshipping cult from India, who take their revenge by transforming his daughter into a reptile. It is essentially imperialism that invites this destruction.
Plague in particular contains a complex critique of power and oppression. The Squire's first appearance is effective not only because it is accompanied by James Bernard's understated musical motif, but because cinematographer Arthur Grant films him from a relatively low angle, drawing attention to his powerful, domineering position. Elsewhere in the film, the ubiquitous high-angle shots underscore the subservience of all the characters (including Andre Morell's aristocratic Sir James Forbes, one of the few examples of an upper-class hero in Hammer) to the Squire's lust for control. These high-angle shots foreshadow the climax of the film when the Squire is left to die, trapped in a burning mine. He is filmed from the point of view of his foes as they ascend in the lift. Here there is an ironic role-reversal, with the power now in the hands of the oppressed.
Don Sharp's Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1965) provides an interesting interplay between the lower and upper echelons, with Christopher Lee's mystic peasant manipulating the Russian aristocracy into satiating his sexual and material desires. The upper class, represented almost solely by Renee Asherson's Tsarina, is unusually sympathetic (although it is worth noting that females of the ruling class often seem to have a tempering effect on the feral instincts of the males: Baroness Meinster in The Brides of Dracula does not share her son's outright villainy, and attempts unsuccessfully to restrain him, while the newlywed Marquessa Siniestra in The Curse of the Werewolf urges her husband to take pity on the beggar he is ruthlessly humiliating.) Even so, although the members of the ruling class are not themselves the monsters in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, the forces of oppression are still inherent in the very nature of the upper class power to which Rasputin aspires.
The terrorised community: Hammer's lower class
Given the standard representation of the aristocracy as an oppressive ruling class, it is perhaps surprising that Hammer routinely depicted the victimised working class in a less-than-flattering way. More often than not, the lower classes are represented by ignorant Mitteleuropean peasants bound by fear and superstition and unable to help themselves. By contrast, Terence Fisher's heroes were always middle-class men who combined a strong faith in the supernatural with an equally strong sense of reason, usually flanked by the extremely superstitious on one side (the peasants) and the coldly rational on the other (e.g. Charles Lloyd-Pack's Dr Seward, who makes a fleeting appearance in the first Dracula film).
The villagers of Fisher's Dracula are merely the first in a long line of spineless lower-class peasants who stubbornly refuse to help the middle-class hero, in this case Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, in his quest to hunt down the monster. Likewise Harry Court (Edward de Souza) in The Kiss of the Vampire is met by a conspiracy of silence from the innkeeper and his wife when Marianne falls into the hands of Dr Ravna. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965), the outspoken Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) chastises the peasants for their superstition, preventing them from staking a suspected female vampire and disdainfully tearing down the strings of garlic that hang in the inn. The tavern folk of Freddie Francis's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) will later be censured in much the same way by the Monsignor (Rupert Davies), although in this film the peasants are positively dislikeable, rather than merely uncooperative. At best peasants provide comic relief; at worst they are graverobbers and looters (Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell).
However, there are a handful of peasants who break the mould and run to the support of the middle-class heroes. In The Reptile (1966), Michael Ripper plays an innkeeper who is one of the few villagers not to meet newcomer Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) with hostility, instead showing an unusual amount of independence and strong character, for a Hammer peasant, by joining him in his investigation to find the cause of the mysterious plague sweeping the village. In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the main protagonist against the Count --insofar as the film has a main protagonist at all-- is Paul (Barry Andrews), a working-class student. He finds himself at odds with the Monsignor (Rupert Davies), because of his own professed atheism and lack of middle-class etiquette. The Monsignor lacks the presence of Dracula's earlier adversaries, namely Van Helsing and Father Sandor, and is exposed as a blustering hypocrite when he scolds Paul for owning up to his atheism, having only moments before extolled the virtues of honesty. Eventually Paul emerges as the hero of the film, a kick in the teeth to Terence Fisher's earlier theistic conception of the Dracula universe, and a subversion of Hammer's tradition of middle-class heroes.
One of us: Hammer's middle class
While Hammer's villains were usually aristocratic and powerful and their chief victims powerless peasants, the heroic principal characters for whom the audience rooted were almost invariably middle-class. Of these Van Helsing is certainly the progenitor - firm, sensible, and most importantly (for Terence Fisher at least), straddling the thin line between an arrogant rationalism and the blind superstition of the lower classes. Although it is the provincial lower classes who have suffered most under Dracula's long "reign of terror", we specifically champion the middle-class Holmwood family. Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans) in The Curse of the Werewolf stands in the same tradition of middle-class heroes, as do Edward de Souza's Harry Hunter and Gerald Harcourt in The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), respectively. Further examples include Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) in The Gorgon (1964), and Francis Matthews's Charles Kent and Ivan in, respectively, Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk (both 1965).
Dracula, Prince of Darkness provides an interesting portrayal of two middle-class couples travelling in the Carpathian Mountains. The prudish, middle-class sensibilities of Helen (Barbara Shelley) may seem like mere stuffiness, but in fact her conservative instincts are proven to be quite trustworthy. She alone of the party is alert to the dangers looming in Dracula's castle. The decidedly looser, more easy-going attitudes of Diana and Charles (Suzan Farmer and Francis Matthews), who are at home drinking among the working-class peasants at the local inn, cost the group dearly, eventually robbing Alan (Charles Tingwell) and Helen of their lives at the hands of Count Dracula. As much as we might dislike Helen's primness, her propriety and reserve might have saved the travellers from Dracula's demonic clutches in the first place.
Nevertheless, Hammer was not averse to critiquing bourgeois society. We are ambivalent towards Baron Frankenstein precisely because, while he has all the traits of a villain, he often finds himself pitted against the comfortable middle classes, represented by stuffy and self-serving old gentlemen who stand in the way of progress. He is at his most sympathetic in The Evil of Frankenstein (1963), an otherwise mediocre instalment in the series which has little sense of continuity with Fisher's previous two entries (it is directed by Freddie Francis). Bourgeois society in the film is corrupt through and through, with Frankenstein the hapless victim of the middle-class whom they simply won't "leave alone", as he laments. In the later Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969, a Fisher film), the Baron listens to the sanctimonious chatter of his fellow tenants as they about his scientific exploits, and interrupts with, "I didn't know you were doctors." When they reveal that they are not doctors, he replies caustically, "I'm sorry, I thought you knew what you were talking about." Despite the fact that in this film the Baron is at his most unambiguously arrogant so far in the series (hence he, not his monster, is the one who "must be destroyed"), he has no problem gaining our sympathy when he exposes the self-righteous pomposity of his middle-class peers.
The hypocrisy of middle-class Victorian England is the thematic mainstay of Peter Sasdy's remarkable Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969). The church-going, moralistic William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen) is the embodiment of this bourgeois arrogance and hypocrisy. A brutally domineering patriarch, he maintains a respectable face in his community, while by night he and his companions (John Carson and Peter Sallis) indulge in all manner of vice. Seeking something new to relieve the boredom of week after week of this lifestyle, they are taken in by the youthful Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who invites them to participate in an occult ritual to sell their souls to the Devil. When the ritual goes badly wrong, the three men panic and turn violently on Courtley, whom they unintentionally murder. Their furious attack is easily seen as a projection of their disgust at their own bourgeois duplicity. Interestingly, when the satanic ritual backfires and Count Dracula is resurrected, he returns as much as an agent of justice and retribution on the oppressors of Victorian society as an outright villain. The pseudo-aristocratic Lord Courtley has already received his comeuppance, but the bourgeois set have yet to receive theirs. Thus it is hard not to feel some ambivalence towards the Count, when his first victim has already been set up as such a formidable figure of hate.
It is perhaps not surprising that when the world that embodied the social dynamics of Hammer's Dracula and Frankenstein series started to fade away, the Hammer gothic genre as a whole began to suffer. Like the unfortunate peasants of its films, Hammer met an ignoble end, the quality of its productions steadily declining into the '70s with a few exceptions. The earlier films remain a fascinating testament to a particular structure of class and power, one that, perhaps, could only have been made in England.—David L. Rattigan
Selected Hammer Filmography
The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958) The Hound of the Baskervilles (Terence Fisher, 1959) The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959) The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960) The Curse of the Werewolf (Terence Fisher, 1960) Captain Clegg (Peter Graham Scott, 1961) The Phantom of the Opera (Terence Fisher, 1962) The Evil of Frankenstein (Freddie Francis, 1963) The Gorgon (Terence Fisher, 1963) The Kiss of the Vampire (Don Sharp, 1963) Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1965) Rasputin, the Mad Monk (Don Sharp, 1965) The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966) The Reptile (John Gilling, 1966) Frankenstein Created Woman (Terence Fisher, 1967) Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968) The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968) Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969) Taste the Blood of Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1969)
Hutchings, Peter. Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993. _____________. Terence Fisher. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. Leggett, Paul. Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002. Pyrie, David. A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1946-1972. London: Gordon Fraser, 1973. Winters, Joe. The Monstrous Sins of Hammer's Upper Class. Horror-wood Webzine, February 2005.