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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.