Beauty and the butcher knife

An old-school British studio hammered out horror on a shoestring

October is waning, like always, and 'tis again that very witching time of year to butcher the Bard, when churchyards yawn and so do we as we troop off to the movies in the vain hope of seeing something more chilling than the third black cat at the costume party or facing four long years with a beady-eyed blank-slate like George the Second in the Oval Office. On second thought, perhaps "therapeutically frightening" is more le mot juste. Nothing could be more chilling than the prospect of another Bush administration.Even though Halloween is traditionally the prime season for scary movies, don't be shocked if you find the box-office pickings slim. American horror cinema, though not precisely in decline, has been suffering for some decades from a kind of slow but distinct stagnation. Ironically, this monster malaise is the direct result of the tremendous boom the genre enjoyed in the late '70s and early '80s. The movies are a high-risk racket, and whenever a relatively low-budget shocker like Friday the 13th turned a tidy profit, producers eagerly cranked out as many sequels as the market would bear.
You'd think that by now they would know better. Recalling briefly the aforementioned little-black-cat crisis, it doesn't take marketing genius to see that when it comes to making a lasting impression, there is no strength in numbers. Once a critical cat-mass is reached, each costumed cliché dilutes the impact of all other kitty-clad partygoers. True, coming to the Halloween bash dressed as Gertrude Stein will deny you a chance to don a form-fitting unitard, but at least you have a good chance of being the only one there. So because the element of surprise is often essential in setting the viewer's skin a-crawling, the negative effects of dumping too many Halloweens or Child's Plays (or would that be Children's Plays?) on the audience seem pretty obvious.
But bad habits are hard to break. There are a slew of sequels making the rounds this year, and even the so-called alternative or arthouse-picture peddlers have succumbed to the plague. Assuming that lightning can strike twice, Artisan, the powers behind the buzzy Blair Witch Project, have rushed to bring us another installment in the saga, scarcely a year after the original was released. An odd choice since the first one hit the jackpot thanks almost exclusively to novelty. Then again, given the strength of the trend, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that we aren't being asked to cough up eight bucks for The Seventh Sense: The Seventh Grade.
Granted, there have been a few good or even great IIs or IIIs or even higher integers over the past two decades. And to be fair, the sequelization of horror films is hardly new. Universal, synonymous with horror in the 1930s thanks to its pseudo-literary, elegantly stylized versions of Dracula and Frankenstein and the like, regularly recycled its monsters. It seldom worked. The apple generally fell too close to the tree, and the studio found it got less bang for its buck making knock-offs rather than re-releasing originals.
The '50s saw another wave of horror films break in America. Some of these spawned sequels, but the cynical teens, who were then, as now, the prime film audience in the States, had already begun to associate horror, generally, and sequels, particularly, with camp, and it took a British studio to discover the secret (now apparently lost) of successful sequelization. Walking a razor's edge between recognition and rejection, a tiny exploitation course called Hammer Films started making brand-new movies only nominally based on subjects and sources already well known in the U.S.
So filmgoers thought they knew what to expect when they went to the outfit's breakthrough 1957 release, The Curse of Frankenstein. They didn't get it. Faced with a market on the very verge of being completely Dracula'd out, Hammer let the kids know right away that they were not being asked to buy their parents' horror films. Hammer's horror pics drew on old standards for themes and characters, amply augmented by an unprecedented amount of cleavage, both literal and figurative, or rather, figural. Whether the main character was Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper or Frankenstein's Monster, the House of Hammer filled the frame with buxom young lasses in anti-gravity bustiers, who were constantly being groped, seduced, pursued and slaughtered, generally with a sharp implement, either by or in spite of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Unlike the decorous horror films of earlier decades, in which the camera tactfully turned away from scenes of violence, the horrific hijinks of Hammer were always accompanied by piercing screams and lots and lots of bright red blood.
More important than the studio's laudable contributions to the field of gratuitous sex and violence was Hammer's realization that it was the monster's name, and to a lesser extent, his modus operandi, that was valuable. As long as they kept Dracula's trademarks (cape, neck-nibbling, stakes) and provided an adequate supply of damsels and dismemberment, they could do whatever they wanted with characters or narratives. No one gave a wet slap that the Curse of the Mummy's Tomb could be Superglued into a rational relationship with the Blood From the Mummy's Tomb. It wasn't even the same Mummy. Or, for that matter, the same tomb. But it didn't matter — the audience wanted to be surprised, even unpleasantly.
Hammer's films are the first example in horror cinema of full-on film franchising, with bad guy as brand. For a while it was wildly successful, and the freedom to invent within the formula allowed Hammer to make horror history. Although, with the exception of a few minor masterworks (The Damned and the semi-Saphic she-vampire classic The Vampire Lovers leap leggily to mind), most Hammer movies were nothing to write home about, and some like The Abominable Snowman and Dr. Jeckyll and Sister Hyde are singularly putrid. But the House of Hammer still managed to put out nine Draculas, five Frankensteins and five Mummys, without ever making the same movie twice — a far cry from the slavish re-enactment of plots and devices that mar most post-slasher era sequels.
By the late 1970s, however, the Hammer girls 'n' gore system was wearing thin. George Romero had forever raised the bar for bloodshed in 1969 with Night of the Living Dead. And thanks to Aaron Spelling, you could get T & A on TV. The studio had to go to ever more bizarre lengths to keep its franchises fresh. Without even an audience left to lose, Hammer pulled out all the stops and used its license to change with wild abandon. Desperation lent violent energy to some of these late experiments, however wrong-headed. Dracula-1972, showing next week during a Halloween Hammer tribute at cinéfest, tried to put the venerable vampire into the contemporary swinging scene — with crotchety Cushing and Lee in the leads. Neither of the actors is happy to be there, and the results are, unintentionally, laughable, like Grumpy Old Men with vampires.
1974's Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, on the other hand, is the studio's swan song. Burning every bridge they can find, the film plays like an allegoric, apocalyptic battle-royal pitting the Hammer and Universal paradigms incarnate against the dawning aesthetic of films like The Exorcist, which was released the same year. The outcome in the film was the same as in the theaters: Exorcist by a knockout.
Perhaps the fall of the house of Hammer is part of why the genre has in recent years become so conservative. In approaching a sequel, horror producers seem unwilling to change anything besides the budget. The assumption seems to be that money can redeem redundancy. Unfortunately, film franchises, like troubled businesses, relationships and public schools, seldom get better with a simple injection of cash. In fact, the $10 million Artisan poured into the new Witch (the first was shot for around 20K) does not bode well. Bigger budgets tend to work to the detriment of horror, where it seems best to keep your directors lean and hungry. But no matter where you put the bottom line, be it Blood of Dracula rags or Shining riches, movies have to catch us off guard to get under our skin — and there is so little dynamism in contemporary horror cycles that old movies might be the only thing new to us anymore.