Book review: The Art of Hammer

The Art of Hammer
by Marcus Hearn
Published by Titan Books, October 2010
ISBN: 978-1848567375

Review copy provided by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This is your standard coffee table book; that is, an oversized volume full of colorful pictures meant to amuse guests while they wait for you to make coffee or finish getting dressed. But if your guests are real horror fans or just totally into Hammer films, you may end up spending the night at home going through the pages of this humongous book, admiring all the brightly colored old movie posters and going, “Oh, I remember that one! Scared the hell out of me when I was a kid!” or “Yeah, what a stinker that one was. The poster sure had me fooled.”

With a brief introduction by the author in teeny-weeny print, the majority of the book’s pages are lovingly devoted to faithful reproductions of Hammer Film’s vintage movie posters, the same ones you remember seeing in the lobby of your local movie theater while you were growing up. Some of these posters are so old, they had to be copied from someone’s private collection. Sadly, the posters are usually the first thing to go when a feature changes. Smart theater employees usually save at least one copy for themselves, or to sell or pass on to someone else who loved the movie.

The poster designs vary depending upon which country the film was released in (the movies were released in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain, as well as in their native England). The titles weren’t always translated word for word either; I got a chuckle out of seeing how some of my childhood horror favorites were translated into Spanish and Italian. I still remember enough of my high school French to marvel at the transliteration of “The Mummy”, released in 1959, to “La Malediction Des Pharaons.” The Italians got even sillier when they translated “Quatermas 2” aka “Enemy from Space” (U.S. title, 1957) into “Vampiri dello Spazio.” At least the French came close when they retitled “Curse of The Werewolf” (1961); it became “La Nuit Du Loup-Garou” (The Night of The Werewolf).

The popular British movie studio was renowned for its horror films back in the day; what day depends upon which era you grew up in. The table of contents lists every era from the 50’s to the 80’s, so no matter what era you grew up in, you’re sure to find a few of your old favorite movies listed in this book. I was surprised to see that Hammer Studios made comedies as well, though I don’t remember seeing any of them in the United States. I guess they just weren’t as popular here as the horror movies. But who could forget the cinematic classics that made Christopher Lee famous as Dracula, and Peter Cushing as his nemesis Van Helsing. Not to mention the sensuous and sexy Ingrid Pitt, recently deceased, whose role as Carmilla/Mircalla in “The Vampire Lovers” (1970) was an inspiration to lovers of vampires everywhere, especially lovers of girl-on-girl action.

Of course no good horror movie can be released without some controversy, otherwise known as free publicity. Both official and self-appointed censors and protectors of public morals in all the aforementioned countries were quick to denounce Hammer Films for “their vulgarity and corrupting influence.” They also denounced the posters for their lurid content, especially the Women In Peril themed ones showing beautiful girls (often anonymous models with only the vaguest resemblance to the heroine, or anyone else in the movie) shrinking away from the monster, when they weren’t unconscious and being carried away in its arms or paws. The most controversial poster was the one for “The Camp on Blood Island” (1958), which was about the brutal mistreatment of allied prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II; the film was severely criticized for its racist depiction of the Japanese. The original poster, showing a menacing Japanese soldier waving a samurai sword, was even banned in London and replaced with a new one commissioned by the studio, showing only the bottom half of the soldier with his hands clutching a sword.

All in all, “The Art of Hammer” is a refreshing piece of nostalgia for all lovers of classic horror films released by the venerable Hammer Studios. Collectors of classic films and their related memorabilia should find this an invaluable guide to the authenticity of any posters they dig up at a horror con or an antique shop. The only thing that would have made the book better, in my opinion, would have been a brief description of what each movie was about beneath each poster. It would have to be in the same teeny-weeny type as the introduction, but hey, we’re talking about posterity here! The present generation may not be as familiar with these beloved monsters as we are, and it would help to be able to tell Junior and Sis exactly what that lady in the picture is screaming about and why that man looks like a vampire, or werewolf, or zombie, etc. Or just give the kids the book and let them go through it on their own while you’re channel-surfing for something good to watch on some dark and dreary night. The kids might even end up urging you to rent or buy the movie in question so they can see it for themselves. And who could possibly object to exposing kids to popular culture, except the same official and self-appointed guardians of public morals who dissed these films when they were new?