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Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror

Image // Unrated // October 5, 2004
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 1, 2004 | E-mail the Author
There is perhaps no single movie company that engenders the kind of loyal fan following and scholarly scrutiny as Britain's Hammer Films. Though it produced movies of all kinds -- comedies, swashbucklers, thrillers adapted from radio shows -- it is by far best remembered for its Gothic fright films and, to a lesser degree, science fiction thrillers and period fantasies, often also laced with horror. Though the company more or less exists today, as a production entity it petered out long ago: despite the best efforts of its varied successors, Hammer hasn't made a new movie in 26 years. Nevertheless, classic titles, films including The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), One Million Years, B.C. (1967), and The Devil Rides Out (1968), are perennially popular and have continued to sell well on tape, laserdisc, and DVD.

Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror (1994) is an excellent feature-length documentary about the company, whose then-revolutionary combo of sex and (mostly implied) gore genuinely shocked late-1950s audiences but became almost quaint just 15 years later, when movies like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) changed the face of movie horror. At 103 minutes, Flesh and Blood is both leisurely and detailed, and pretty much covers all the bases. Written, directed, and co-produced by Ted Newsom*, the project clearly is a labor of love. It's both affectionate and informative, entertaining in of itself, anecdotal yet also a useful reference.

Flesh and Blood is noteworthy in another way. Newsom succeeded in bringing together Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing one last time, as off-screen narrators. The two hadn't worked together in more than a decade, and not memorably so in more than 20 years, but the poignancy of their reunion, such as it was, wasn't lost on fans, nor on Cushing or Lee. Cushing, most recently suffering prostate cancer after a long series of physical and mental trauma, was frail and emaciated (he died less than three months after recording his narration), and Newsom wisely keeps him off-camera. While Cushing's illness seem to have manifested a noticeable lisp, he somehow rallies enough strength to give his half of the narration an alternately warm and authoritative air. Newsom's script adapts Cushing and Lee's personal anecdotes, giving the show a nicely intimate feel.

The documentary first aired on British television days before Cushing's death, but lost in all that attention was the near simultaneous passing of Michael Carreras, who died that April. Hammer's beleaguered executive producer and eventual owner, Michael's battles with his own father, company president Sir James Carreras, were the stuff of legend. Michael makes no effort to hide his bitterness at his father's Enron-like approach to Hammer, which he ran into the ground with little concern for its long-term future, its employees, or the quality of its films. Tony Hinds, whose music hall comedian father, Will Hinds, gave the studio its name (he had been part of a duo called Hammer & Smith), alternated producing duties with the younger Carreras. Tony Hinds, in his interview, comes off as delightfully acerbic, and like most of the show's subjects, looks back at his career with an agreeable balance of wit and great honesty.

Though Terence Fisher, the director of many of Hammer's best movies, was long gone by 1994 (though even he's spotted in archive footage), most of the studio's surviving directors are interviewed at length, including Val Guest, Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker, and writer-turned-director Jimmy Sangster. American director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Looney Tunes Back in Action) is on-hand offering both his informed historical and personal perspective on the Hammer cult.

Other interview subjects include Raquel Welch, Ingrid Pitt, Martine Beswick, and Veronica Carlson, all of whom are impressively well-preserved, despite the more than 30 years since they screamed their way through various Hammer titles. Newsom does a good job acknowledging the family-like atmosphere the studio enjoyed, and gives equal time to behind-the-camera talent like longtime Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and composer James Bernard. One of the show's best moments is a collage of Bernard's title cues, all melodically timed with the title of each film (e.g., "Frank-en-stein Must Be De-stroyed!")

Video & Audio

Any documentary about Hammer presents special problems, which is probably why it took an independent filmmaker like Newsom to see it through. Unlike a major Hollywood studio, which produces and distributes its own films and retains ownership thereof, Hammer for most of its history was a production entity with no distribution arm, relying on other studios to finance its films -- and Hammer changed studios the way others change socks. All this makes it nearly impossible for anyone wanting to use clips from Hammer's films. Its Frankenstein movies, for instance, were alternately released by Warner Bros., Universal, Fox, Warner Bros. (again), and Paramount, and that was just in the U.S. Because of this, licensing clips for a show like this would likely run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, thus forcing the use of public domain trailers to fill out the program. These clips range from not-bad to pretty awful. Likewise, the mostly self-financed show relies on interviews shot under myriad conditions on several continents, and there's little consistency. All this is generally okay, however, as the interviewees are professionally shot and their comments easily understood, and the clips serve their function well enough. Less successful are the frame grabs and still images drawn from who-knows-where -- archive images of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and whatnot. Many of these are so blurry and so far removed from their original source as to be almost schematic. Despite all this, the 4:3 show, with no optional subtitles, is ultimately a triumph of content over gloss.

The only Extra Feature is a lame promo trailer, which adds nothing to this DVD.

Parting Thoughts

While an obvious choice for Hammer Horror fans, Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror is good enough that those unfamiliar or less interested in this particular era or its genre should find it an entertaining, informative program.

* Full disclosure here: Ted Newsom is a friend and colleague of this reviewer, having met during the production of another documentary, Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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