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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hump-Day Harangue: Why Hammer Beats Universal (Almost) Every Time

As a fan of classic horror—by which I mean anything before Romero’s zombies threatened the countryside and Rosemary had her baby—I’ve often gotten caught up in that eternal debate: Which studio was superior, Universal or Hammer? And by writing this, by no means do I want to denigrate one or the other, or imply that one is subpar. Rather, both the Universal Studios output of the 1930s/40s and the Hammer output of the 1950s/60s/70s represent high watermarks in the history of horror. It’s just that, given the choice, I usually go with Hammer.

That’s right, I’m choosing the Brits over my own countrymen. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Universal’s iconic cycle of horror flicks, which first introduced moviegoing audiences to the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and more. I just believe that by reinvigorating the gothic genre in the era of radioactive monsters and exploitation, Hammer did Universal one better and set the benchmark even higher.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, first and foremost—in my estimation, both James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are superior to any film ever put out by the Hammer studio. That said, outside of those two films, I generally find the Hammer body of work to be more enjoyable than the Universal body of work. There are a number of reasons for this.

Maybe chief among them would be that Hammer represented my original introduction to the horror genre. I like to think I’m not so prone to such a subjective view, but I must at least entertain the possibility that I’m biased. As a very small child, I first discovered what horror was all about thanks to those weekend afternoon showings of Hammer gems on syndicated TV in New York. Channels 5, 9 and 11 were my tutors in pop culture, and among the gifts they gave me was Hammer. In fact, Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire may have been the first horror movie I ever saw.

But beyond this mere nostalgia, there’s more. As time went by and I came to discover Universal not long after, I also developed a strong love for their brand of horror as well. But it never supplanted Hammer in my heart.

Not to sound like a Philistine, but a large part of this had to do with Hammer’s vibrant Technicolor. One of the main elements that the studio itself took pride in was that it was reinventing these classic horror tropes in a color medium, replacing Universal’s crisp black and white with the garish, comic book-like hues never before seen in gothic cinematic horror. And while generally I deplore the attitude that black and white is somehow inferior, in this case—especially as a child—I was more drawn in by those bold, almost shocking colors.

Needless to say, one of the main uses Hammer made of that full color palette was to show blood. And by “blood” I mean some of the first major instances of simulated bloodshed ever seen in horror movies, especially of this kind. Whereas the Universal canon was more staid in its presentation, leaving more to the viewer’s imagination (often due to constraints from the Hayes Committee), Hammer let it all hang out, splashing the camera with more bright red plasma than had ever been seen. This meant that instead of a fangless Dracula (all due to respect to Bela Lugosi), we got a fanged and fierce Christopher Lee, gore dripping from his lips, his eyes ringed in scarlet. For an eight-year-old, literally the stuff of nightmares.

Hammer made a splash (pardon the pun) through their then-liberal usage of blood, but they also became known for something else: beautiful women. Although it may sound silly to harp on it, Hammer’s unprecedented emphasis on sexuality was a big deal, and also helped usher horror into a new era just as much as the blood did. The buxom and often exotic women who populated Hammer’s films brought blatant sex appeal like never before, in stark contrast to the often prim and buttoned-up sexuality occasionally glimpsed in Universal. This is not to say that Universal horror was not dealing with sexual themes, just that they did it in a much more (necessarily) subtle and subtextual way, whereas Hammer—in typical studio fashion—loved bashing you over the head with it.

Another aspect of Hammer that they often don’t get enough credit for is the return of gothic horror to its proper Victorian roots. Whereas Universal’s films often took place in some vague, unknown time period that seemed like a confusing cross between modern times and the 19th century, Hammer was careful to set its stories firmly in the Victorian era (or earlier in some cases). 

This worked especially for many of the tales, like Dracula and Frankenstein, which were set in earlier time periods and were for the first time being presented that way—but Hammer went much further than that. Perhaps out of a sense of national pride in their own fabled history, they enjoyed making nearly all their films period films, delighting in breathtaking costume and set design that really gave you a sense of being in an earlier time. It would be a new standard that would be copied by all gothic horror going forward, right up until today.

In short, I think what makes Hammer my preferred source for classic horror is that their output generally works better as horror films, if that makes sense. While the Universal classics were usually more polished, especially those of the 1930s, and were superior as films, Hammer’s work was just downright scarier, with more of a flair for the horrific. While Universal had fine filmmakers like Tod Browning and Whale, exceptional cinematography from the likes of Karl Freund, brilliant set design from the likes of Russell Gausman, and of course the writing of the great Curt Siodmak, Hammer answered back with workhorse director and writer Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster, meticulous costume designer Molly Arbuthnot and the blaring musical scores of James Bernard. 

While Hammer generally worked with a smaller budget, they made you feel as if their productions were more lush. Universal may have been more mainstream and high-profile, especially in the U.S., but Hammer made up for their technical shortcomings with more of a genuine relish for horror. They threw themselves into taking the groundwork laid by Universal and ratcheting it up about five or six notches. And they were damn good at it.

So while I thoroughly enjoy my Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney just as much as the next horror nut, my soul belongs, in the end, to Cushing and Lee. Pressed to make a choice between Universal and Hammer, I’ll go with Hammer. But it’s kind of like asking me to choose between Sinatra and the Beatles, or Marvel and DC—I may go with the Chairman and the Board and the House of Ideas, but that shouldn’t take anything away from my profound love for the Fab Four and the Distinguished Competition as well. There’s room for all in my horror-lovin’ heart.

And if you, like me, enjoy a good Hammer flick—or two!—I urge you to join me tomorrow night in Bridgeport for BEDLAM AT THE BIJOU: Hammer Horror, a unique double feature in which I’ll be screening both Hammer’s version of The Mummy and the vastly underrated Curse of the Werewolf! Plus, we’ve got Hammer DVD and book giveaways, and a special appearance by the LoTTD’s own John Cozzoli of Zombos Closet of Terror! Hope to see you there, Vault dwellers…

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Vault of Horror's Post-Holiday Gift Guide!

What, you may ask, is B-Sol doing putting out a gift guide now, a week after New Year's--and two weeks after Christmas? It's simple, really. There will be many of you, no doubt--myself included--for whom this time of year brings with it the promise of great generosity from our loved ones. Yes, it is indeed better to give than receive, and God bless those in our lives who also feel that way. Because if you're anything like me (which I hope, for you're sake, that you're not), then the days following Christmas find you burdened with the weight of gift cards and/or cold-hard cash bestowed upon you by those who hold you dear.

If you ask me, this is the time when a gift guide really comes in handy. You can hem and haw all you want about what to buy that special someone in your life, but what about when you actually find yourself flush with capital and eager to spend it on your life's one great passion: horror? Well, that's when you turn to your old buddy B-Sol, right here in The Vault of Horror. Because I'm about to regale you with a veritable cornucopia of self-gifting ideas designed to help make your post-Holidays retail therapy as beneficial as possible...


Cannibal Kitchen: A Horror Lover's Cookbook
If you're a longtime reader of horror website Brutal as Hell, then you're very familiar with the work of Shannon Rullo, whose "Slash and Dine" column on terror-themed culinary delights never failed to amuse. Slash and Dine later spun off into "Cannibal Kitchen", which led to what we have here--easily one of 2012's coolest horror-related books. Shannon's love of horror and cooking are both voracious, plus she's just a swell gal, period.

The Walking Dead: Compendium 2
The immense popularity of The Walking Dead TV series (it's the highest rated dramatic series in the history of cable television) has brought a new and fervent fan following to Image Comics' Walking Dead comic series upon which it's based. I checked out after issue #34, but I've always meant to go back and catch up. For those of you like me, Image has just put out the second in a series of mondo-sized reprint collections. This one covers graphic novel collections #9-16--or if you were one of those old souls who actually, you know, read the actual comics, that's issues #49-96.

11/22/63: A Novel
Leave it to Stephen King to make time travel this scary. Published earlier last year, this latest doorstop-sized tome from New England's favorite son is the tale of a man traveling back in time in an attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination. My sister picked this one up for my dad for Father's Day last year, and the old man had nothing but rave reviews for it.


Baron Blood: Kino Classics Remastered Edition
Did I ever tell you how much I love Kino Video? Well, I love them. And this is just one more reason why. Added to the list of lost classics they've restored to home video is now the Mario Bava chestnet Baron Blood, starring the legendary Joseph Cotten and the delicious Elke Sommer. It's Bava returning to his gothic roots in a delightfully garish smorgasbord of technicolor that's a must-have for any fan of Italo-horror. It even has an audio commentary from Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas!

Godzilla vs. Biollante
Arguably the most popular of the Heisei Godzilla films at last gets its long-awaited release on DVD and Blu-Ray. Now you can glory in Big G battling a giant radioactive flower with the amazing picture and sound such a conflict deserves. And even though that sounds bitingly sarcastic, I actually mean it in all earnestness. 

Easily one of the most fun genre releases of 2012, perhaps rivaled only by The Cabin in the Woods and Frankenweenie. I took the Captain and the kids AND my mom to this, and we all had a blast. Great to see such smart, dark humor make its way into a "family" film, not to mention the stunning stop-motion animation work we've come to expect from LAIKA, the studio that gave us Coraline in 2009.

The Gingerdead Man Trilogy
You read that right. For all of you who just can't get enough of everyone's favorite homicidal baked food product, now you have a chance to own all three films (there were three films??) in one magnificent box set. Get it for Gary Busey alone!

American Horror Story Season 1
The finest pure horror series to come down the pike in a very, very long time--and possibly the finest episodic horror series of all time, AHS is a gift-wrapped present to the entirety of horror fandom. I encourage anyone who hasn't discovered it yet to please do so. This is the first outstanding season, which aired in late 2011 and early 2012 on the FX cable network. If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, here's your chance.


Resident Evil 6
Capcom's juggernaut--which arguably launched the entire zombie renaissance of the 2000s, soldiers on with this latest installment. I'm not much of a gamer, but I will admit to a certain fondness for zombie fare like RE and House of the Dead. Available for PS3 and XBox.

Dead Island
Speaking of zombies, here's one that's been generating quite a bit of buzz since first hitting the scene a little over a year ago. Anytime there are zombies on a tropical island, only good things can ensue, as far as I'm concerned.


Doctor Dreadful Zombie Lab
If your kids are anything like mine, they'll probably eat this up--literally. In a throwback to those classic morbid kid's food-making toys of the 1970s, this set allows little ones to make their own bubbling brains, eyeballs, barf, and a whole lot more--all edible, of course.

2013 Zombie Girl Calendar
Can you tell I like zombies? We might be a few days into the new year, but it's still not too late for a new calendar if you don't have one yet. And what better than 13 months of hot zombie chicks? Trust me, I'm a bit of an authority.

Arkham Horror
A stunning update to the classic 1987 original, this new edition of the acclaimed Lovecraftian board game/role playing game is well worth the wait. A bit pricey, but there are few games of this kind that are this downright cool in both concept and design.

There you have it, Vault dwellers. For those of you still holding on to cash presents and gift cards, I say happy hunting, and may you gift for yourself all the things you didn't get from anyone else. Even if you don't have any gift money to speak of, I think you might just find a few of these items a little too awesome to pass up. Enjoy the new year, horror fans!
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