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Review: The Art of Hammer

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Friday, November 19, 2010

If you're knowledgeable about your film history, a fan of classic horror movies or grew up a generation ago in the British Isles then you are familiar with the name of Hammer Films. While the company's origins lie in the 1930s, Hammer's film legacy truly began with its run of modestly budgeted gothic horror movies in the 1950s. Over the spread of the next three decades, the name of Hammer Films became synonymous with several actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who made their mark playing the doomed scientist or the prince of darkness, Count Dracula, respectively.

The Art of Hammer collects the movie poster artwork from Hammer's collection of films from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. It was a time when British audiences ate up Hammer's high concept (but low budgeted) B-movies, films that offered frights, thrills and sometimes a glimpse of a young lass' bosum in her undergarments. Hammer was a slight notch up from the really low budget grindhouse movies that were made in America at the time, but it was still producing its films for patrons that wanted cheap thrills and risque but not-too-naughty laughs. But here's the thing: while Hammer might have been making a string of financially successful grindhouse films, and keeping a large swathe of English actors and filmmakers gainfully employed, it was also unintentionally leaving a sizable mark in the minds of filmgoers in Britain and also around the world. Hammer's movie posters, made to try and entice as many into purchasing a ticket by marketing the film's monsters and sexual innuendo, became as recognizable as the brand itself. When you saw the newest Hammer movie poster in a theater's lobby or inside its "Coming Soon" poster display, you knew exactly what you were getting. And over the course of those three decades, it was a marketing formula that worked spectacularly.

curse_frankenstein_poster

As assembled by Marcus Hearn and published by Titan Books, The Art of Hammer is a beautifully created love letter to the company and its pop culture impact. Over 190 pages of Hammer's poster art are lovingly laid out on high quality, glossy paper stock. The images of the posters themselves retain all of the neon color and vibrant artwork that you remember from them. Included in the selection are multiple poster concepts of individual Hammer films and not just the quad posters or American one-sheets. You're also given an education about the business twists and turns that Hammer took to attain ratings or worldwide distribution for some of its more titillating or controversial pictures.

Reading the book from its start to end, you can see the evolution of Hammer's marketing of its films from the posters it made as well as the growing visibility and star profile of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In the posters from the 1950s there's still a heavy detective noir vibe to the Hammer products being offered to audiences, and the poster artwork is appropriately fashioned to chase after this ticket buyer. Films with titles like Bad Blonde, Paid to Kill and Men of Sherwood Forest show us the end of this era of swashbucklers, gangster and femme fatale movies, and them in 1955 comes the arrival of the horror films, The Quatermass Experiment (also known as The Creeping Unknown) followed by Cushing's first Hammer film, The Curse of Frankenstein in '57. Lee's first portrayal of Dracula takes place in 1958, and his pale visage hovering inches above the throat of a sleeping woman on the movie's poster drove audiences to the cinema. By this point Hammer execs knew that they had found a winning formula for both their films as well as their posters, and it was a method that the company repeated throughout the coming years.

dracula_lee_hammer

It's fascinating to see how movie posters for B-movies evolved over the course of the '50s to '70s, and how gradually more erotic elements began to be included in the film's print marketing campaign. Hammer also enjoyed success making a number of sex farce comedies with suggestive titles like Up the Creek! and A Weekend With Lulu. In the mid-1960s, someone at Hammer had the bright idea of cross pollinating the sex appeal of scantily clad women with the high concept monster movie or adventure meme. The result was the creation of One Million Years B.C. and Hammer's most famous poster that featured a loin-clothed Raquel Welch dominating the paper (the dinosaurs or "monsters" of the movie were reduced to being tiny compared to the real estate that Raquel got on the poster.) This kind of marketing didn't always work, as was the case with The Old Dark House (1966) which tried and failed to blend comedy, horror and a little bit of provocative female flesh to woo audiences to see the film.

one_million_years_bc_poster

The book takes the time to educate you on the ups and downs of Hammer while showing one to three posters on each page. Bigger pictures from Hammer's portfolio are given the space that they demand, and often the author takes pause to inform you of a piece of trivia about the production of the poster. The taglines and the artwork also tell part of the Hammer story, and flipping from one year to the next I relished in seeing how Hammer tried to fill seats with its salacious sentences. "Torn from the pages of history!" reads part of the copy for the poster of Rasputin - The Mad Monk (1966); "When it comes to LOVE or MURDER...There is no one as dangerous...as the...PARANOIAC!" (1963); or "Man at the Mercy of a Kingdom of Prehistoric Women!" in the appropriately named Prehistoric Women film of 1968.

dracula_ad1972_poster

I've got several favorites in The Art of Hammer and you will as well, all depending on your tastes in film and how much you enjoy the tongue-in-cheek nature of selling B-movies to the masses. There are many more famous Hammer movies and posters contained in the pages of the tome, some with plainly better art than others, but one of the new standouts that grabbed my heart was the poster for a film that I had never heard of until picking this book up. It's called Moon Zero Two and it came out sometime in 1969. There are four examples of different movie poster art for the film, one which reflects the serious science aspect of taking a trip to the moon (and possibly very much influenced by another film in cinemas around that time, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.) That said, it's the painted poster and the comic book-influenced poster for Moon Zero Two that I love, with its men and women in astronaut helmets, spaceships belching fire from their engines and moon sirens in silk dresses. If I saw a poster today for a sci-fi film that showed a redhead wearing nothing else but black panties and a bra (and one strap is slinking down her shoulder) while she's at the controls of a moon ship, I'd open my wallet and buy my movie ticket. With not a bloodsucking vampire or mad scientist in sight, it's these two Moon Zero Two posters that sum up my love for Hammer posters.

The Art of Hammer: The Official Poster Collection From the Archive of Hammer Films is a great addition to your personal library, and one that should take up some room on your coffee table so it can entertain your guests. It's a celebration of the Hammer legacy, a time capsule that gives praise and serious study to an artform that no one suspected was an artform at the time of its creation.

Review Score: 80 / 100

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