With his Hogwarts years a fading memory, Daniel Radcliffe finds himself in an altogether more terrifying setting in his latest film, The Woman in Black. Set in Edwardian England, the story sees him play a young lawyer facing a vengeful spirit bent on frightening him out of his wits. But it’s not just the titular ghost that has returned from the grave. The movie is the latest outing from Hammer, the iconic UK production company that became synonymous with horror in the mid-20th century, but was absent from cinemas for more than 30 years until its return in 2010.
Hammer made more than 150 features between 1935 and 1979 and became almost as renowned for its business model – reusing sets, costumes and actors for its numerous Frankenstein and Dracula sequels – as it did for gothic storytelling, bursting bodices and fake blood. According to Simon Oakes, the chief executive and president of Hammer Films, at any given hour of the day, there is a Hammer film being broadcast on television somewhere in the world.
“The thing about Hammer is it became known as ‘Hammer House of Horror’ through a television series it made in the early 1980s, but it actually had a multi-genre appeal,” he says. “It did the Frankensteins and Draculas, but it also did some pretty esoteric movies, like Rasputin: The Mad Monk, She and One Million Years BC. The idea has always been for Hammer to be quite a broad church.”
Classics such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Mummy (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960) were hits not just in the UK, but in the US, Europe and even further afield. Working out of the legendary Bray Studios near Maidenhead in the UK county of Berkshire, Hammer’s prolific output was even recognised by Queen Elizabeth in 1968, when she presented the company with an award for its substantial contribution to the British economy.
But by the 1970s, its formula had become outdated. Struggling to compete with a resurgent horror scene in the US – from major studio movies such as The Exorcist (1973) to independent gore-fests such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Hammer opted to play up the sexual element of its films, and made disastrous attempts to modernise its stories, such as the laughable Dracula AD 1972 (1972). After its final film, 1979’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic, The Lady Vanishes, Hammer made a foray into television that was successful but short-lived.
After being bought by the Dutch media tycoon (and Big Brother creator) John de Mol in 2007, the studio made its big-screen comeback with 2010’s Let Me In, a US-set remake of the 2008 Swedish child vampire movie, Let the Right One In. Although generally well-received by critics, the bleak tale was only a modest financial success. Then came a pair of low-budget thrillers: the supernatural Wake Wood (2011), which delivered something close to an Irish version of The Wicker Man, and The Resident (2011), a somewhat lacklustre stalker tale redeemed by fine performances from Hilary Swank and long-time Hammer alumnus Christopher Lee.
With The Woman in Black, Hammer has scored its first smash hit since returning to screens. The film recouped the entire production budget in its opening weekend in the US and outdid even The Muppets during its opening in the UK.
“Woman in Black has been exceptional – it’s beaten expectations,” says Oakes, who sees the film’s success as vindication of the revived company’s strategy: to produce new, disturbing works that fit into the Hammer’s existing canon without being confined by it.
“I don’t think horror is the default setting,” he says. “We acquired Hammer, which hadn’t made a movie since the late 1970s, and what we’re doing is rebooting it in a way that we think is right for the brand.”
Already in the works is The Quiet Ones, a macabre tale supposedly based on a true story of a Svengali-like university professor who attempts to create a poltergeist. The studio has also picked up a screenplay for a new Jack the Ripper movie, Gaslight, and plans to adapt the novelist Cherie Priest’s 19th-century, Seattle-based steampunk story Boneshaker for a possible series of films. Oakes says Hammer is also in the early stages of bringing one of its best-loved characters, the alien-fighting scientist Bernard Quatermass, back to the small screen in a major new drama akin to the BBC’s current hits Doctor Who and Sherlock.
“We always said that we weren’t going to rest on our laurels and just go back to the catalogue and make remakes,” says Oakes. “But in certain areas where we are known for certain properties, we would look into it. We are looking into developing a contemporary Dracula; it’s very early days though. That’s the only, if you like, ‘iconic’ character that we’re looking at.”
Any decision to revisit Dracula would be a bold one, not simply because it could be seen as contrary to Oakes’s vision of a refreshed, forward-looking Hammer, but because many regarded Dracula AD 1972 (which featured a caped Christopher Lee parading around 1970s London) as a hefty nail in the studio’s coffin.
However, in today’s world of reboots, remakes and contemporisations – not to mention Volvo-driving vampires in Twilight – Hammer might just pull it off.