Iconic British film studio Hammer Film Productions is well known and regarded for their gothic horror output that took off in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but the 1934 founded company has an extensive catalog of films and television series from all genres. Hammer first garnered a lot of attention for retooling the Universal classic horror films with their own gothic style in the ‘50s, and by the ‘70s their horror received some serious critical appraisal. But the ‘70s also marked a major shift in the horror landscape, and fans weren’t so interested in gothic tales anymore. Hammer attempted to branch out, but their reputation had been founded on their brand of gothic horror and so the attempts didn’t have the nearly the same impact.
If you’ve been paying close attention lately, you’ve likely spotted that iconic Hammer logo in the opening credits of recent releases. 2010’s Let Me In remake, 2012’s gothic redo The Woman in Black, the upcoming chiller The Lodge, and more all bear that trademark logo. After a couple of decades in the shadows, this iconic company is in the midst of a revival.
All of this to say that unless you’re already well versed in their extensive output it can be intimidating to know to start. Consider this your starter kit to Hammer Horror; these 10 horror movies make for a great introduction.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Upon initial release, the critics hated this movie. Luckily that sentiment wasn’t shared by audiences, who turned this low budget horror experiment into a major success for Hammer. It paved the way for the Hammer Horror legacy that followed. Hammer’s first color film, this take on Mary Shelley’s classic tale is far more gruesome and bloodier, and far removed from the revered Universal classic iteration. Starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as The Creature, The Curse of Frankenstein is heavier on character work as well as body count.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Released as Dracula, it was retitled Horror of Dracula to avoid confusion with the 1931 film of the same name. A critical and commercial success, Dracula was the first to see Christopher Lee in the titular role Count Dracula. Peter Cushing played his nemesis Van Helsing. Extravagant production design, shocking blood and violence, and eroticism all solidified Hammer Horror as a definitive brand. It also marked the beginning of a series.
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The sequel to Horror of Dracula followed Van Helsing (Cushing) returning to Transylvania to aid beautiful school teacher Marianne, who has fallen prey to the bloodthirsty Baron Meinster (David Peel). The Brides of Dracula expands the vampire lore without the aid of Dracula himself, and continued to up the ante on the sex appeal and horror. This played a direct influence on filmmaker Jess Franco.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Based on the novel The Werewolf of Paris, this one stars Oliver Reed as Leon, the bastard son of a mute servant that was raped by a crazed beggar. That alone would give anyone deep-seated issues, but poor Leon also finds himself dealing with a hunger for flesh and excessive body hair. That’s right, he’s a werewolf. A unique spin on the werewolf tale with a riveting lead performance and beautiful cinematography. It helps that the werewolf transformation is pretty well done, too.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Hammer’s spooky twist on the zombie movie saw a Cornish village being wiped out thanks to a mysterious epidemic. Doctor Tompson is stumped, so he seeks outside help from a friend, Sir James Forbes, and his daughter. In an attempt to investigate, the men find all the coffins of the deceased empty, and they soon encounter zombies. Two years prior to the release of George A. Romero’s gamechanger, this zombie film centers on Haitian voodoo. Zombies may have changed dramatically since, but this was among the first to depict them rising from their graves.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Christopher Lee made his return as Count Dracula in this sequel, forever tying him to the iconic character. After a prologue that catches viewers up to speed from the original film, the main plot sees a resurrected Dracula hunting four unsuspecting visitors of his castle. Though Lee’s role in this one is limited, his menacing performance is now iconic. This sequel also helped set the standard Hammer Horror blueprint for future entries.
Quartermass and the Pit (1967)
Not all great Hammer movies worth seeking out exist solely in the realm of gothic horror, and this sci-fi/horror movie proves it. The third entry in the Quartermass series, and the best entry by far. You don’t need to have seen the previous two to enjoy this one, either. The plot sees a strange artifact unearthed in London, and scientist Bernard Quartermass is called in to determine its origin and effects on humanity. Intelligent and introspecting, this film has been cited as a major influence to Stephen King and John Carpenter.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Also known as The Devil’s Bride, this cult horror film really delves into the workings of a Satanic worshipping cult and sees said worshippers working to convert two new victims. Christopher Lee plays Nicholas, Duc de Richleau, an investigator that deduces his friend’s son may be one of the cult’s newest inductees. An epic battle of good versus evil, full of chills and adventure, The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer horror’s best. It also seems to be one of the rarer instances in which Lee plays the good guy.
Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1970)
You know the story; a Victorian scientist develops a serum that causes him to turn into a monstrous mastermind. But what if he turns into a murderous seductress instead? That’s the concept behind this fun, sensual twist on a familiar classic. This one is pure over the top camp in the most entertaining way. Hammer Horror developed a name from gothic retellings of familiar classics, but the company doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for just how unique these retellings can be. This is a great example.
Captain Kronos- Vampire Hunter (1974)
With interest in gothic horror waning fast, Hammer attempted to launch a new franchise. One that gives vampires a different spin and adds sword fighting adventure to the mix. Also, the focus was on the plucky swashbuckling hero Captain Kronos and his humpbacked sidekick, and less so the villains. A blend of multiple genres that also toes the line between tongue-in-cheek and serious, Captain Kronos is one of Hammer’s most fun films that deserves a bigger audience.