Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bill Breedlove's Horror Column #4: AN OPEN LETTER TO HAMMER STUDIOS

Dear Friends,

First of all, let me offer you my much-belated congratulations on resurrecting the great and beloved Hammer mantle from the dusty crypt of history. Like many people on both sides of the big pond, I spent a great deal of my formative years watching classic Hammer productions, and thrilling to the exploits of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt, Bryant Haliday, Hazel Court and many, many others. I knew Freddie Francis as a great director before David Lynch ever made him a cinematographer. I more rabidly followed Terence Fisher’s filmography than Martin Scorsese’s. And, I loved the work of Jimmy Sangster (R.I.P.) much more avidly than that output of Robert Towne or William Goldman.

But, enough about me, this letter is about YOU, and although it’s difficult to separate my intense fondness for the Hammer of my childhood with my clear-eyed adult appreciation of cinematic and literary endeavors, I will do my best.

I know the entertainment business is a harsh place, and success is very difficult—not only to achieve, but also to maintain. I am sorry that things turned difficult for Hammer in the 1970’s, but the marketplace changes over time as we all know. I don’t care what anyone says, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER still remain awesome.

Being a resident of the U.S., I unfortunately did not get to see the original runs of “Hammer House of Horror” and “Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense” (we got “Tales from the Darkside” and “Monsters!” not fair!). Maybe its just as well—in those heady years of the 1980s, when it seemed everyone with $20 and a video camera was making a movie (anyone remember THE BEING? From…Idaho??? This was a good example of “WTF” before “WTF” had been coined)—the ability to appreciate all of those Hammer virtues was probably clouded.

But, again, no one was more thrilled than I to hear that Hammer was “back in the game” again. It certainly has to be a difficult balancing act, being a good steward of the incredible bank of fond memories that people feel towards Hammer and it’s classic productions on one hand and trying to create contemporary, competitive productions in this modern, very different marketplace on the other.

With that in mind, I have a couple of suggestions that you may find helpful, or you may find useless. Either way, they are my gift to you, free of charge. (Although, if anyone digging through old boxes comes across an old “Eff you, Amicus!” t-shirt, keep me in mind).

First and most important—DON’T FUCK WITH THE OLD CLASSICS. I am sure this doesn’t really need to be said, but, just in case I thought I would helpfully put it out here in all caps so it doesn’t get overlooked.

This single biggest asset that Hammer has is the accumulated love and goodwill accrued from all those horror-loving people, who, most likely, started out watching classic Hammer films as children. We all tend to romanticize and attribute outsize importance to our happy memories from childhood. Not only does that warm and happy feeling make the Hammer film library a valuable asset, but it also guarantees that when people see the “Hammer” logo on a new piece of entertainment, they will fondly smile and at least consider taking a peek at something that is a kissing cousin to “Curse of Frankenstein.”

I’m sure it isn’t lost on you that George Lucas didn’t cast Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original STAR WARS because he liked “Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.” And Peter Jackson didn’t want Christopher Lee to take on the role of Sauron in the LOTR trilogy because of “Man with the Golden Gun.”

No, you know that both little George and little (or, perhaps better put, “smaller”) Pete remembered those two pros fondly from watching their favorite Hammer productions while still in short pants, in front of the family TV on a Saturday afternoon.

Much like the oath all doctors must swear to before becoming a physician: “first do no harm,” that should similarly be your mantra with respect (and r-e-s-p-e-c-t is the key word here) to those beloved classic films. HANDS OFF.

Reissue them with multiple DVD outtakes, tons of “special features” on Blu-Ray and however else you can figure out to repackage them—it’s your right. Folks will dutifully collect them as a precious, lost part of their childhoods, but for the sake of all that is holy—DO NOT REMAKE, REBOOT or RE-IMAGINE any of those Hammer classics.

And since we’re on the topics of “remakes,” we might at get this out of the way right now. LET THE RIGHT ME IN. WTF? You open up one of the most beloved, respected horror film studios in the world, and one of your first projects is a remake of an-almost perfect Swedish vampire film (from a even-more-almost-perfect novel) with the title dumbed down for American audiences? With the setting moved from snowy 1970s Sweden to…New Mexico? Really?


Sure, the resulting movie was not bad at all. But it wasn’t as good as the original, and more importantly, with ALL of the possible projects to make in the world of horror, you chose THAT ONE?


Whether it made it’s money back on international and DVD/home audience is not important. Whether Stephen King liked it is not important. What is important is that it was UNNECESSARY.

The dedicated fans of vampires, great writing and all things Sweden had already sought the novel and original film out. Hence, the idea to remake it, “Americanized” to hit a broader audience, could only be considered a failure, since the small U.S. box office indicates that the ticket buyers were probably mainly the folks who already liked the original.

But more importantly that the merits of one version vs the other is the fact that this production was the CHOICE to start the era of the fledgling “new” Hammer studios. Again, the remake, in 2010, of a 2008 film. Really? There wasn’t anything more promising?

At least there was no immediate remake of, say, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, but still.

Just in the U.K., there are numerous exceptionally talented horror writers, both established old war horses and young up and comers. Hammer has already signed up both, with novels from Graham Masterson and Mark Morris coming up. With Hammer’s new book line, it’s a great opportunity to not only publish superb horror stories, but also a perfect place to find optionable material for the next film production. With folks like Sarah Pinborough, Gary McMahon and Jospeh D’Lacey happily writing away in Hammer’s own backyard, there should be plenty of top-notch material being generated SO THERE’S NO NEED TO DO ANOTHER REMAKE.

Good, I am glad we are clear on that.

HOWEVER, if you must, have-to, it’s either-a-remake-or-we-blow-everything-up-kind-of-day, then might I suggest looking back at some of the material in the Hammer library which you already own the rights to, and which perhaps could be improved upon with another attempt?

We’ve already covered the sanctity of the “classics” in the Hammer library. But what about those films that—while also beloved in their own right—were not entirely successful in their original incarnation?

No better example comes to mind that THE REPTILE.

For me, and a bunch of other American kids, this movie has one of the most iconic monsters ever, thanks to FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND repeatedly running photos of the eponymous creature on the cover.

It’s a great little story—scares, pathos and a “surprise” twist that makes it a memorable film that somehow seems lacking. It feels like it just misses “classic” status, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.

But, a remake—either keeping the same setting or updating it to contemporary time—might be able to improve upon the already rock solid bones of the original.

And, did I mention you already own the rights as part of the Hammer library?

Or how about THE GORGON? That one had both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and still need some help. A modern day Medusa? One how perhaps changes into a snake-headed monster at certain times because of a curse? Tell me that doesn’t sound intriguing!

Or THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS! Admittedly, this is a pretty good film already, but an update? The pro-environment/animal-rights subtext from the original with Peter Cushing vs the callous hunter Forest Tucker would really resonate today. And, the definitive Abominable Snowman film has yet to be made.

Anyway, the point is, that if you feel you MUST remake something, please feel free to first look at the large and fertile field provided by the impressive Hammer Library.

But, more importantly, what will the “new” Hammer productions look like? Let’s look at the two films already released that aren’t remakes of Swedish vampire thrillers: THE RESIDENT and WAKE WOOD.

THE RESIDENT looks to continue the oft-overlook subset of Hammer films in the “psychological thriller” genre, following in the footsteps of such cleverly titled movies as MANIAC, PARANOIAC, HYSTERIA and FANATIC. The cast has Hillary Swank(?), Jeffrey Dean Morgan and even Christopher Lee. So far, so good.

OK, so the movie stinks. It’s completely unbelievable and in fact makes no sense whatsoever. Even worse, putting the creepy photo of Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the cover makes it painfully obvious who the villain is, even though it’s supposed to be a big surprise. That’s kinda like having the opening credits of THE USUAL SUSPECTS read “with Kevin Spacey as Keyser Soze.”

It was such a hot mess that it was sentenced to straight-to-DVD hell in the US. Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in a direct-to-DVD release? Really?

Poor Jeffrey Dean Morgan deserves better. Between this one, THE LOSERS and JONAH HEX, if the remake of RED DAWN bombs, he is gonna be stuck in that “hybrid of Javier Bardem and Gerard Butler second rate beefcake” category forever.

But anyway, let’s turn to happier things, namely WAKE WOOD. Now THIS is exactly what I would expect from the “new” Hammer films! Let’s break it down:
1. Creepy premise (small village where your loved one can be resurrected for three days).
2. Cast of unknowns except for one hammy supporting turn by a familiar face (Hello, Timothy Spall!)
3. Creepy setting, preferably in England, Ireland or Scotland. (Check)
4. Suspicious acting, and quite possibly evil villagers. (Check)
5. Gratuitous violence. (Check)
6. Gratuitous gore. (Check, check and check!)

And you know what? This was a perfectly adequate creepy little horror film. The script probably could have used one or two more rewrites, and there are too many similarities to PET SEMATARY, but overall it’s enjoyable.

And, most importantly from a “Hammer brand” standpoint, it has ATMOSPHERE. The village is creepy, the townspeople are creepy, even Timothy Spall’s tweed hat is creepy somehow. The wind turbines that surround the village and their oddly disconcerting “whump-whump-whump” are great background visuals and soundtrack help.

If you ask most people to apply one adjective to describe “Hammer” I would guess that aficionados would overwhelmingly select “atmosphere.” The older Hammer classics had it, and this film has it in spades. It not a great film, but it is a great start on the rebirth of the Hammer name.

It’s exactly the kind of “little” film that major studios wouldn’t make, with a small budget and zero explosions. This is Hammer’s sweet spot. Making small, creepily atmospheric movies that can trade on the existing expectations of Hammer’s audience. If later it seems smart to branch out to do “bigger things,” then so be it, but let’s nail down the “core values” first.

So, to recap, the world is so glad you’re back, it’s great to see you again, you’ve been away too long. You’ve got a movie line, a book line and game too, so you should be able to be a generator of great content to the horror community.

Leave the remakes/reboots alone, leave Hilary Swank alone, let the Hollywood studios take care of those expensive things like re-imaginings and big-star vehicles, and instead concentrate on little moody, atmospheric and quaint pictures.

With Timothy Spall.

Love & Kisses to your ongoing and future success,

Bill B.