Hammer House of Horror

One of the great British film industry successes of the 1950s and 60s, Hammer Films pretty much died after the Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil a Daughter in 1976. (The final nail in the coffin was a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which put them fatally in the red.) Hammer Films Ltd was shut down, but its hastily-conjured doppelgänger Hammer Film Productions remained (backed, at first, by chemical company ICI), though largely to collect royalties. In an effort to regain some liquidity, they resurrected an idea first mooted in the early 70s, of having a Hammer television series, and this time it sparked to life, funded by Lew Grade’s ITC. (Who also financed Jim Henson’s Muppet movies and The Dark Crystal, before Grade was bought out and a more hard-headed businessman took over.) The thirteen (of course) episodes of Hammer House of Horror were broadcast between 13th September and 6th December 1980.

I came to the series knowing nothing about it other than that it was from Hammer, so I was expecting something in the same vein as their more well-known output, with takes on Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, most probably set in 18th Century rural Europe or 19th Century London (similar, perhaps, to the Mystery and Imagination series of classic horror adaptations on ITV in the late 60s). And the opening titles, with a big old spooky house at night, accompanied by some 60s-style theme music, didn’t do anything to disabuse me of the idea.

From “Guardian of the Abyss”

But the episodes that followed were quite different. At an hour minus ad-breaks each, they were mostly written by the TV writers of the day rather than Hammer’s own writers (the notable exception being John Elder, who’d written a slew of classic Hammers, from The Brides of Dracula to The Ghoul, and had been responsible for suggesting the studio buy the rights to the first Quatermass TV series). The script editor was Anthony Read (who’d written The Invasion of Time and Horns of the Nimon for Doctor Who, as well as episodes of The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel). He also wrote the opener, “Witching Hour”, about a modern-day couple menaced by a 17th century witch (who is at first convinced electric lights are the work of the Devil). Also writing for the series was Jeremy Burnham (co-writer of Children of the Stones and Raven, who had one Hammer film to his credit, The Horror of Frankenstein), Gerald Savory (writer of my favourite Dracula adaptation, the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula), Murray Smith (who hadn’t written a Hammer film, but scripted the 1971 British horror Die Screaming, Marianne), David Fisher (who’d written two Doctor Who’s with Hammer-like titles, The Stones of Blood and The Creature from the Pit, as well as the less-lurid Leisure Hive). The author of perhaps the most memorable episode, “The House that Bled to Death” — memorable because its scene in which a kids’ birthday party is showered in gallons of blood turned up on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments — is David Lloyd, and the strange thing is, it seems to be his only TV or film writing credit. (Prior to that, he was a tennis pro, and afterwards went on to found a chain of gyms and health clubs.)

The infamous children’s birthday party from “The House that Bled to Death”

It seems to me Hammer House of Horror offered something of a unique opportunity to its writers. On the one hand, with the name of Hammer behind it, audiences were primed for lurid Gothic horror with plenty of blood and pulpy shocks. (The publicity claimed they got through five gallons of fake blood a week.) And it’s true, there were werewolves (“Children of the Full Moon”), devil-worshippers (“Guardian of the Abyss”), witches (“Witching Hour”), cannibals (“The Thirteenth Reunion”), and so on. But the writers set everything in modern times, thus bringing in a more realistic feel, and often a more convincing depth of character than you’d find in a Gothic Hammer outing. (Hammer had, of course, done psychological horror, such as the excellent The Nanny, but that’s not what the studio’s name usually brings to mind.) The writers, then, seemed free to experiment with stories set in a world that mixed something very (1980s) modern and realistic with moments of lurid horror, and the results were often stranger than you’d expect from a TV horror anthology show.

In “Rude Awakening”, for instance, Denholm Elliot is an estate agent fed up with a wife who won’t divorce him, and he finds himself waking up in an apparently endless series of nightmare versions of his life in which he has murdered his wife and some supernatural retribution arrives because of it. Once he realises it’s all a series of dreams, though, he decides he might as well go ahead and get some satisfaction by murdering her — only, it turns out, this time he has actually woken up.

Ahhh, it’s Peter Cushing with a puppy.

Something more traditional was “The Silent Scream”, notable for featuring an actual Hammer star, Peter Cushing. Recently-released-from-prison Brian Cox tries to begin a new life on the outside. He goes to see the pet-shop owner (Cushing) who visited him during his time in prison, who said his own experiences in the Nazi Death Camps taught him what it was like to be in prison. But it turns out Cushing’s character wasn’t on the Jewish side of that equation, and is now working, behind the scenes, on a new system of incarceration without bars. He has been testing it on his collection of dangerous animals, but now he’s ready to move on to a human subject…

The show is full of recognisable actors from the British film and TV world of the time, including two stars of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow), as well as Warren Clarke, Barbara Kellerman (who’d play the White Witch in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Suzanne Danielle (a Movellan in Destiny of the Daleks, and the lead role in Carry on Emmanuelle), and Anthony Valentine (Baron de Belleme in Robin of Sherwood).

The series’ two most disturbing episodes, in my opinion, were the last two. In “The Two Faces of Evil” a family pick up a hitchhiker in the pouring rain, a man whose face they never see, because he starts fighting the husband at the wheel, causing a crash. When the wife (played by Anna Calder-Marshall, who has an excellent face for sustained terror) wakes in hospital, she’s relived to find her son and husband also survived, though her husband received an injury to his throat which means he can’t speak. She and her son go to the cottage they’d booked for their holiday, and it isn’t too long before they’re joined by her husband. She soon starts to suspect, though, that he isn’t her husband at all, but the hitchhiker whose face she never saw.

Anna Calder-Marshall — an excellent face for sustained terror

With a title like “The Mark of Satan”, I was expecting the final episode to go out in a blaze of Gothic glory, but it turns out to be more like a male version of Rosemary’s Baby. Its main character is a worker in a hospital morgue who has become convinced the recurrence of the number 9 in his life is a message that he’s been infected by “the Evil virus”, which killed his father. He’s obviously paranoid and on the verge of a breakdown, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also being pushed into selling his soul to Satan by a conspiracy of devil-worshippers.

Both of these episodes spend a lot time in the blurry territory halfway between mental illness and supernatural horror, which makes me think of the work of Ramsey Campbell — either story might have been an adaptation of his work.

“Witching Time”

Hammer House of Horror didn’t make it to a second series because of Lew Grade’s ITC being bought out, (though it was eventually followed by Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984), but it’s an unusual slice of British tele-horror, certainly more lurid than you’d normally find on the small screen in those days. It was also more experimental, and though not all the episodes were entirely successful, it was at least an interesting watch.

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On Fairy-Stories by J R R Tolkien

“On Fairy-Stories” is one of those rare windows — along with Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Le Guin’s key essays in The Language of the Night — into the thinking of a major fantasy writer about fantasy itself. They’re often as much (if not more) about what the writer thinks others are doing wrong than how to do it right, and usually end up having to be mined for a few insightful gems — which, though rare, are always well worth the mining. Tolkien’s idea of the Eucatastrophe, the “sudden, joyous ‘turn’” which he believes ends the truly effective fairy-story, doesn’t appear till about a page before the end of his essay, but it’s certainly worth everything that comes before.

He first presented this piece as “On Fairy Tales”, delivered on 8th March 1939 as an Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews. (Other Andrew Lang Lecturers include John Buchan, the Scottish Symbolist painter John Duncan, and, much more recently, fantasy writer Jane Yolen.) It was then published as “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947, alongside C S Lewis’s “On Stories”, and others. It would only have reached a wider public in 1964, when it was collected in Tree and Leaf.

Tolkien starts by asking, “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” Much of what he says might sound commonplace today, certainly among people who read — definitely among those who read about — fantasy, but even when I first read it in the late 80s, it was the first time I’d encountered such positive statements about fantasy as a literary form. Perhaps the only thing that seemed off at the time was that Tolkien was using the term “fairy-stories” for what by the 1980s was firmly called “fantasy”, but his definition certainly fit:

“…fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”

A lot of what Tolkien says in his essay serves to defend fantasy against what was then the generally held view, that it was basically for children, and wasn’t worth taking seriously once you’d grown out of it. Fantasy was seen, at the time, purely as an exercise in “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge’s phrase), and thus an indulgence, a temporary dip out of the real world. Tolkien instead puts forward the idea of fantasy being an exercise in Sub-creation, in which the writer “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.” This might at first sound basically the same as “the willing suspension of disbelief”, aside from its being presented from the creator’s, rather than the reader’s, point of view, but Tolkien’s language is already hinting at the conclusion of his essay. “Sub-creation”, and “Secondary Worlds” are secondary to “Primary Creation” and “the Primary World”, which were, to the Catholic Tolkien, the works of God. Human beings couldn’t create as God did, but also couldn’t help imitating their creator by some act of creation. (Which recalls George MacDonald’s idea that “The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God”, and thus is a route to knowing God.) Fairy-stories, then, aren’t an indulgence, but a fulfilment of all that makes you human.

Tolkien goes on to present four terms for what he believes are the function of fairy-stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Of these, Fantasy is the vaguest, perhaps because this is the sense in which we now use the word (of literature, films, and so on, anyway). For Tolkien, “Fantasy” is:

“a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from image… the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Though perhaps he puts this best by saying:

“To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires…”

“Recovery” is a more useful idea, though one that can, really, be applied to all creative art. By “Recovery”, Tolkien means a “regaining of a clear view”:

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Reading a poem about a cat, you might see all cats in a wholly new light; but having seen a dragon (even in your imagination), you’ll find all of reality renewed. One thing that’s interesting in the above quote is how Tolkien links the “drab blur of triteness” by which we can come to see the world when tired or jaded or cynical, with “possessiveness” — which recalls Gollum’s possessiveness of his Precious, and the One Ring’s even greater possessiveness of him.

As to “Escape”, it seems fantasy is less and less dismissed as pure escapism these days, but certainly it felt like the biggest criticism applied to it when I was growing up. Tolkien, though, ties Escape with Recovery in a neat comparison. Fantasy is not “the Flight of the Deserter” but “the Escape of the Prisoner” — the prison, in this case, being that “drab blur of triteness”. (Though in some cases it’s an actual prison, as with Malory or Bunyan.)

Tolkien’s final factor, “Consolation”, is perhaps the one that’s still easiest to dismiss, though it’s the one that, being tied to his idea of Eucatastrophe, is the key idea (for me) of this essay. Consolation is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”, and is embodied in Eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace” that provides “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire”. It’s this point, probably, that most critics would say is the essentially escapist (as in “Flight of the Deserter” escapism) aspect of fantasy, because “real life” doesn’t have happy endings. But Tolkien’s point could be taken as saying that it’s to return to the belief in the possibility of happy endings, or at least happy turns, that leads to the strongest sense of Recovery. But Tolkien’s actual point was that there is a happy ending to life, only it’s not in life, but after it. For him, the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the story of Man’s history”, and Heaven is the happy ending. But I don’t think you have to believe as he believed to accept the psychological benefits of experiencing a happy ending, however artfully (sub)created, every now and then.

Tolkien, Machen, Lovecraft

It’s interesting to compare Tolkien’s ideas to those of other creators in a fantastic vein. Just as “joy” is, for Tolkien, the true function of a fairy-story, Arthur Machen, in Hieroglyphics (1902), puts forward “ecstasy” as the only mark of “fine literature”. And even though Machen allows other words to stand in for “ecstasy”, it’s obvious he means something darker, perhaps wilder, and certainly more troubling than Tolkien’s “joy”:

“Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of ‘ecstasy’ as the best symbol of my meaning.”

Machen’s is a mystic’s joy.

There’s even more of a contrast with Lovecraft, particularly over Tolkien’s idea that the “joy” he finds in fairy-stories is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”. For Tolkien, this is a glimpse of the underlying reality of Christian truth, but for Lovecraft, whose tales also sought to attain “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”, that truth was the antithesis of anything remotely Christian. Nevertheless, for each author, it was the truth — the truth of how they felt about the world, anyway.

Both Tolkien and Lovecraft saw their chosen literary form — fairy-stories and weird fiction — as existing to convey a single feeling, the essence of the world they felt they lived in. And this seems true of many writers, and artists generally, that they have a single essential thing — that might be named by a single word, but which, to them, conveys a whole universe of meaning — a feeling more often than a thought, which sums up reality, or their take on it.

And these are the writers, I think, who keep being read long after their deaths. They come to represent, through their works and their fictional worlds, access to their particular feeling, the thing they were most focused on conveying. I don’t know if this is as true of Tolkien — who you can enjoy as adventure and whose actual happy ending is tempered by a sense of sadness — but it certainly rings true for Lovecraft and Machen.

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The Silence

For a long while, Ingmar Bergman was one of those filmmakers I’d heard a lot of people praise, but didn’t know much about, aside from a single viewing of his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, on TV. I set about watching a number of his films, and in the main they weren’t quite what I expected. (I’m feeling ready for a re-watch, for a better take on him.) Only one clicked with me, 1963’s The Silence, a dream-like and unresolved narrative whose characters, world, and story seem haunted by something unnamed, and which in turn came to haunt me. It seemed more like a Robert Aickman short story, replete with surreal and menacing tensions, than anything else I’ve seen.

Two sisters, Ester and Anna, along with Anna’s young son Johan, are travelling by train through an unnamed European country. Ester is ill, coughing blood with a strangled, silent cough into a handkerchief, and they decide to stop so she can rest. The remainder of the film takes place in and around a seemingly massive, and mostly empty, hotel, in a country whose language none of the three main characters understand, and where the tensions between the sisters come to a head. Eventually, it’s decided Anna and Johan will continue, while Ester remains behind.

So, what are the tensions between the sisters? Ester, the older, is a literary translator, and we only need to witness her strangled-to-silence coughing to know how much she represses her body’s physicality. She’s both jealous and judgemental of the more sensuous Anna’s love life, including the love of her son. One interpretation (offered by Woody Allen in his foreword to Bergman’s autobiography) is that Ester is “the head”, the intellect, and Anna is “the body”, but this, I think, is to play into the sisters’ own trap. Ester is cut off from her body, but tortured by the absence of what it can provide. She longs to have physical contact — with her sister, her nephew — but can’t achieve it, and later confesses how repugnant she felt sleeping with men to be. “I wouldn’t accept my wretched role,” she says, of being a wife, a mother, a man’s lover. “But now it’s too damned lonely.” Perhaps the best illustration of Ester’s relationship with her body is when she turns on a radio while lying in bed. We only see her hand in the shot, and when lively music comes on, her hand dances on top of the radio, obviously enjoying it; then her head comes into shot, taking over, and the hand is forced to change the station to something more somber, more intellectual, and the dancing stops. She chain-smokes and chain-drinks, as though trying to stifle her body’s need for sensation. Whether her illness is an expression of her desire to be cut off from her body permanently, or is her body forcing her to pay attention to it — at several points, it literally cuts her off, leaving her choking for air, in what for me is the most frightening moment in any film I’ve ever seen — is one of the unresolved aspects of the film.

Anna, meanwhile, enjoys bodily pleasures — she likes bathing, she likes food, she likes wearing nice clothes, she likes caressing her son, herself, and men. Ester’s prurience and judgement makes her feel guilty for enjoying these things, but perhaps she’s forced into playing them up in front of her older sister, acting the role of the sybarite, as the two push each other to opposing extremes. Neither, then, is “the head” or “the body” — they’re too fully rounded as characters for that — but their unhealthy relationship forces them into these restrictive and self-damaging opposing roles.

For me, the film is not so much about the sisters’ conflict, as their dual influence on the boy, Johan, and his attempts to integrate these corresponding aspects of himself. He enjoys the physical contact with his mother, but is also intellectually curious, which is Ester’s territory. His warring sisters, though, provide no help in learning how to integrate the two, nor how to deal with the third element the film confronts him with: male sexuality.

Whenever Ester looks out of the hotel’s window, she sees an emaciated donkey pulling a cart, as though to remind herself of her own illness-wracked body. When Johan looks out of a window — either of the train or the hotel — he sees tanks. When he ventures into the hotel’s corridors, he takes his toy pistol. It all starts to seem a little Freudian, with him as the little boy, wielding his little pistol. And the world he enters, when he ventures out into the hotel’s corridors, is oddly fairy-tale-ish, as though it’s there to teach him how to deal with his little-pistol boyhood, before it becomes a dark and powerful tank-like masculinity.

What he finds are seven dwarfs (performers at a local theatre) and a giant (the hotel steward). When he shoots his cap-gun at the dwarfs they pretend to die, then invite him into the room and put him in a dress, as though to teach him to temper his manhood. One wears a chimpanzee mask and jumps up and down on a bed comically, perhaps asking him how much of an animal he wants to be. The boy wanders off and comes across the kindly giant of a hotel steward, who also puts on a comical performance, pretending to teach a sausage a lesson before biting its head off, as though to remind the boy how a man should keep his sexual urges in check. Elsewhere, the boy looks at a massive painting of the centaur Nessus taking Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, on his back — a scene which will lead to an attempted seduction or rape, and ultimately to Heracles’s own death. Johan is clearly fascinated by the painting, but when Ester mentions horses when talking to him of what’s going to happen in the coming summer, Johan says he’s scared of them. It’s perhaps the animal part of himself he’s talking about.

Ester suggests he read to her. The book we’ve seen him reading is Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, whose Byronic hero is single-mindedly intent on seducing women (is this really a suitable book for a boy of his age?). Johan at this moment looks outside and sees a tank in the street, as though to remind himself of the fear of his own sexual role, and instead of reading to his aunt, retreats further into childhood by putting on a Punch & Judy show. Punch kills Judy, then gets scared and (as Johan explains) starts talking in a funny language. Is the Punch & Judy show enacting what he’s starting to feel is the role of a man, culturally-implied by Nessus and Lermontov, to abuse women? Or perhaps it’s broader than that, and the tank made him think of death, and Judy’s death reminded him of Ester’s illness, and it’s losing her he’s afraid of.

“I’ll draw you a nice picture,” Johan says…

All of this is only lightly suggested, and none of it’s fully resolved. So much of the film remains dream-like, even after several close viewings. And perhaps that’s because The Silence, ultimately, has its origin in a dream, as Ingmar Bergman says in his autobiography:

“I am in an enormous, foreign city. I am on my way toward the forbidden part of town. It is not even some dubious area of ill repute with its steaming flesh pots, but something much worse. There the laws of reality and the rules of society cease to exist. Anything can happen and everything does. I dreamed this dream over and over again.”

The film, at one point, was to be titled “Timoka”, the name of the city the sisters stop in; at another time, it was to be “The Silence of God”. I think a lot of the film’s power comes from the unspecific nature of the title. Calling it “Timoka” might have made it sound like a political allegory (and some contemporary reviewers did read it as an allegory of the Cold War). Calling it “The Silence of God” would have made it sound as though the whole mess could be, and ought to be, blamed on a creator. (Ester does at one point, in the midst of her illness’ worst paroxysms, beg “Dear God, please let me die at home”, but we never learn if that prayer is answered or not.) Calling it simply The Silence leaves it open to so many interpretations that it takes on a generalised existential quality: silence as the human condition. There’s the silence of the unspoken tensions between the sisters, and the silence (or inability to communicate) between people generally. Contrasted with this, there’s a positive silence, in the way some things can be communicated without words: Johan’s playing with the dwarfs and the hotel steward, Anna’s seduction of a café waiter (to whom she says “How nice that we don’t understand each other”), the universality of music (it’s the only thing Ester says that the hotel steward immediately understands, along with “Johann Sebastian Bach”, whose music even Anna says sounds nice, in a rare moment of accord). There is, of course, also the silence of death, and the silence of Ester’s distressingly breathless choking, her soundless gasping for air. There’s the silence of Ester’s loneliness, too (“All this talk… There’s no need to discuss loneliness…”). At several points in the film — which doesn’t have a musical score — a fast ticking plays over the soundtrack, like a sort of intensified silence. The ticking of mortality? It comes to each of the major characters, though at one point might be mistaken for the sound of the hotel steward’s fob watch. What does it all mean?

“What does it all mean?” is still my attitude to The Silence. It’s a film with a perhaps bottomless well of meanings. As Robin Wood has written in his book on Bergman:

“One watches the film almost emotionlessly, as if paralyzed, and comes out feeling that one has experienced very little. Then hours—or even days—later, one comes to realize how deep and disturbing the experience has been…”

Bergman influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. Johan wandering the corridors of this unnamed hotel in single-point perspective reminds me of Danny in Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; the bizarrely-dressed dwarf troop in league with a young boy can’t help reminding me of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; and there’s more than a touch of David Lynch about the whole thing. (Plus, Bergman’s probably singlehandedly responsible for all of Woody Allen’s non-funny films. The intentionally non-funny ones, anyway.)

The Silence seems to me like a Symbolist work of art, something like Munch’s The Scream, perhaps, with which it shares an archetypal purity and ambiguity. Munch’s central figure with the wailing mouth — is it screaming, or hearing a scream, or screaming to drown out a scream, or mouthing a scream it can’t produce but can hear? And what of The Silence — the silence before a scream, the silence after one, the silence in longing for one? To all this, perhaps the best answer is — …

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