I’m not a fan of making Top 10 Lists because setting anything in stone—unless you’re a gorgon—is only asking for regrets later. Favorites are fluid, and personal tastes fluctuate. But readers like lists, as do search engines, so for my Happy Halloween post, I’ve put together a sloppy list of my favorite horror movies from Hammer Film Productions during their original years.
Hammer movies are my horror brand. They’re what I think Gothic horror should be. They’re my constant companions each October. And here are ten, listed alphabetically so I won’t get into fights with myself over ranking, that I think represent the best of the studio during its grand era.
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Because this first sequel in the Dracula series doesn’t have Dracula in it, instead using Van Helsing as the continuing character, it often gets passed over. That’s plain wrong, because The Brides of Dracula is the best in the Dracula series after the 1958 original and one of the studio’s most atmospheric and sensuous cinematic experiences. No movie better lives up to director Terence Fisher’s approach to Gothic horror as “fairy tales for adults”: it’s a sumptuous and romantic marvel. Peter Cushing as Van Helsing carries the film, but David Peele’s disciple of Dracula, Baron Meinster, is better than critics often give him credit. I get warm, cozy Gothic feelings from this one—and the finishing blow Baron Meinster receives is one of the best ways I’ve seen to off a vampire.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
I took a lengthy look at both the movie and its source novel earlier this month, so I won’t add much here. The Devil Rides Out is an unusual case of a film that works because it was dated from almost the moment it premiered. The feeling of classical terrors in the era of the revolutionary overturn of horror filmmaking gives the film an enduring charm. The aristocratic Duke and his wealthy friends battling the servants of the Devil is such a pleasant sort of fright. There’s not much better viewing for October.
This is a rare example of a perfect film, a production where everything worked out. Although Hammer opened their Gothic cycle with the The Curse of Frankenstein the previous year, this is where it all came together: the Gothic enchantment of the complete Hammer team, assembled under director Terence Fisher and anchored by the dual performances of Peter Cushing as the definitive Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as a radical reinvention of Count Dracula as a violent, bestial tyrant. It was released in the US as Horror of Dracula, but even the North American Blu-ray now uses the original title, so I think we can toss out the alternate title for good. The movie deserves to be called Dracula because it’s one of the best adaptations of Stoker’s novel ever filmed. It compresses the novel to a lean, explosive story that’s so vibrant it threatens to burn off the screen. It’s sexy, surprising, and paced like Dracula’s careening coach. The finale is one of the most exciting horror climaxes ever crafted, and the film was already firing on all cylinders before then.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
The fifth entry in Hammer’s Frankenstein series is not only its pinnacle, it may be the studio’s best horror film. (I don’t know, ask me tomorrow. This is why these lists are problems.) The Frankenstein films were always discovering inventive ways to interpret the material, often abandoning the concept of a “Frankenstein Monster.” Terence Fisher, in one of his last films as director, channels Hitchcockian suspense for a story about Frankenstein trying to obtain valuable scientific information from the mind of a former colleague locked in a mental asylum. Dr. Frankenstein is now a full-on villain who engages in murder, theft, blackmail, and even rape in his quest for the triumph of his brand of self-aggrandizing science. Peter Cushing is at the peak of his game playing the wicked doctor, dominating everyone around him. But the “monster,” Freddie Jones as a victim of Frankenstein’s brain-transplant scheme, is what pushes Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed into my all-timer ranks. The final meeting between Frankenstein and his creation is electrifying and as good as Hammer gets.
The Gorgon (1964)
There are only two films I watch every October without fail. One is Ed Wood. The other is The Gorgon, which I visited a few years ago in one of my Hammer series for Black Gate. There are few entries in the Hammer canon more suited to Halloween than this tale of an old castle and village haunted by a Greek mythological creature who turns people to stone. Slowly, so it’s more horrifying. It’s not so much the story that gives The Gorgon its October appeal; at its core, it’s a reworking of a werewolf tale. The mood and visuals are what make it an October perennial: dead leaves, crisp winds, cobwebbed old castles, and the sense that something horrible is lurking right behind you but you don’t dare look! The movie contains many pleasures, such as again pairing Cushing and Lee, but with Lee now as the hero and Cushing the villain, and the excellent performances from Barbara Shelley and Richard Pasco in the kind of romantic roles that usually flounder in horror films. But the Hammer visual team, headed by Terence Fisher once more, are what make this one an autumn classic everyone needs to see at least once on an October night.
Hands of the Ripper (1972)
I enjoy much of Hammer’s 1970s output, when the studio tried almost anything to compete with new-wave horror. (How about Kung Fu? Or Dracula in a spy movie? A gender-switching Dr. Jekyll?) But only a few are legitimate classics that can compete with the films of the 1950s and ‘60s. Hands of the Ripper is my personal favorite ’70s Hammer film because of the creative choices it makes in tackling a Jack the Ripper story. We don’t just get a standard killer-stalks-prostitutes story, but an intriguing psychological drama about the daughter of the Ripper, who may have inherited her father’s insanity or may actually be possessed by him. There are gruesome bits (the hatpins! ugh!), but the movie works best when focused on Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) trying to peer into the mind of beautiful young Anna (Angharad Rees) to prove her condition is psychological—and then failing in fatal ways. For all its bloodletting, the movie has qualities of an intimate tragedy, and both Rees and Porter give gripping performances right out of classic British theater.
The Mummy (1959)
When the rotten Tom Cruise The Mummy came out in 2017 and immediately embalmed Universal’s “Dark Universe” project, I wrote a post about the Hammer Mummy for Black Gate to cheer people up. I consider this the best of all mummy movies from any studio. Yes, even better than 1932 Boris Karloff original, and I love that film. Jimmy Sangster’s script takes all of Universal’s Kharis movies—the bandaged killer mummy movies—and compresses them into another great Terence Fisher dark fairy-tale with robust thrills. Like The Brides of Dracula, this is a highly romantic film, something Franz Reizenstein’s sumptuous score highlights, gazing into the marvels of ancient Egypt. But if you also want a bandaged murder machine on the loose, you’ve got Christopher Lee tearing the place up as the best cloth-wrapped mummy ever on screen. Lee’s acting with his body and eyes is a masterclass in physical performance. Peter Cushing is here too, in one of his less flashier roles, but he’s the sort of fellow you want holding down the rational side of your horror movie. Everything you want from a mummy film is here for the looting, and you don’t even have to be cursed for all eternity.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
The Quatermass series is science-fiction horror, but I’m not restricting myself to purely Gothic movies. Quatermass and the Pit is too great to ignore just because it has a setting of contemporary London and spends most of its running time in a Tube station. Hammer had already adapted the first two of Nigel Kneale’s television dramas about scientist Bernard Quatermass facing unknowns from space: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957). It was nine years before they did the third, but the wait was worth it. The first two are excellent 1950s paranoia science fiction, but the third effectively ushers Quatermass into the late ’60s with a film that’s smarter and scarier. The discovery of an alien ship buried under London for millions of years leads Prof. Quatermass (Andrew Keir) to deduce shocking truths about the origins of humanity and the source of our concepts of devils and demonic forces. Neale’s mixture of religious and scientific horror influenced later movies, most notably Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. (Both men were admitted Quatermass fans). As much as I love all the Quatermass films and the connected X the Unknown (1956), this one holds up the best and never fails to deliver the jolts.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
The best of the Dracula sequels starring Christopher Lee finds an excellent way to use the bloodsucking count when he has limited screen-time: have him turn the children of rich jerks into vampires and unleash their spawn on them. It’s a not terribly subtle comment on the rebellion of modern youth culture against parental mores, but director Peter Sasdy cannily weaves in satire of Victorian hypocrisy to create a nice double-whammy of “ungrateful brats” vs. “terrible fathers.” Well, they’re not all terrible: Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace from the Wallace and Gromit films, is impossible to dislike. The Dracula series was in danger of losing steam at this point with Cushing having left it behind, but Sasdy knew how to boost the energy and get the vampire action moving even with Dracula stuck in a deconsecrated church for most of the movie. Nasty fun, and James Bernard’s score is a lushly romantic counterpoint. Unfortunately, the Dracula series hit rock bottom with the next film, Scars of Dracula, so this didn’t end up being the revival it looked like.
Twins of Evil (1972)
It’s hard to imagine a more basic exploitation movie concept than “twin vampire girls played by twin Playboy Playmates.” But Twins of Evil is far better than the exploitive premise would imply. Yes, it’s often sexy (but the nudity is subdued) and the Collinson twins are alluring in some amazing fashion outfits, but the heart of the movie is Peter Cushing leading a puritanical brotherhood of vampire-slayers, and oh it’s a good time. This was the third film in the loose “Karnstein Trilogy” based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella “Carmilla,” which started strong with The Vampire Lovers (1970) then toppled into a quality quagmire the same year with Lust for a Vampire. Dropping most of the more salacious content in favor of vampire-slaying antics and Peter Cushing at his most righteously vile was a smart move. (He even gets to shout the movie’s title: “Satan has brought me twins of evil!” Only Peter Cushing can pull off something like that.) It was first released on a double bill with Hands of the Ripper, and while not as intelligent or dramatic, Twins of Evil has the blood and thrills to send viewers home happy—and for Hammer in the ’70s, that’s more than enough.