For nearly 20 years, Hammer Films was the preeminent studio for horror. Like Universal Studios before it and Blumhouse Productions today, Hammer’s Gothic brand of monsters (alongside some psychological thrillers) resulted in at least two of the more successful horror franchises from the era. Both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing emerged as genre stars courtesy of the British studios. But all good things must come to an end. As horror shifted to grittier, auteur-driven movies from filmmakers like Tobe Hooper and George A Romero, Hammer Films fell out of favor. But the studio’s massive output gave us quite a few gems. Below are ten of the best supernatural horror movies Hammer released during its first run from 1957 to the mid-1970s.
10 – Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
With so many Dracula and Frankenstein movies, it’s almost hard to believe that Curse of the Werewolf is the only werewolf movie from Hammer. As was often the case with Hammer’s supernatural movies, frequent studio director Terrence Fisher played hard and fast with what audiences knew about werewolf mythology. But the result was an engrossing story with an intense performance from a young Oliver Reed. Don’t expect too much werewolf carnage here. Nevertheless, when Reed ‘barks at the moon’, the makeup effects still look pretty good. And Curse of the Werewolf understands that creature movies are usually better when the monster is sympathetic. If the movie wasn’t so slow in its middle act, it would rank higher on this list.
9 – The Vampire Lovers (1970)
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hammer faced a rapidly changing and maturing horror genre. Gothic monsters were falling out of favor. To spruce things up a bit, the studio began adding more erotic elements – including a heaping dose of lesbian vampirism – to maintain its grasp on audiences. The studio’s Karnstein Trilogy, which were actually barely connected to one another, were among the first of their efforts to exploit relaxed content rules. Though some of these later efforts were mixed, The Vampire Lovers is among Hammer’s better movies from the 70s. Here, the mix of more graphic blood and nudity worked well set against the more traditional Gothic elements.
8 – Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Some Hammer Horror fans would put another Frankenstein sequel, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, on this list before Revenge of Frankenstein. Both are excellent sequels but Revenge of Frankenstein paces itself better whereas Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed suffers from serious second act bloat. The first sequel in the series, Revenge of Frankenstein boasts ‘cheats’ at its start and conclusion that would make an 80s slasher blush. Nonetheless, this sequel’s production values remain gorgeous and Cushing is in excellent form as the arrogant and charming doctor.
7 – Vampire Circus (1972)
If not for the next movie on this list, Vampire Circus would be Hammer’s best movie released in the 1970s. With no Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing in sight, Vampire Circus’ story of a travelling circus of secret vampires preying on a plague-ridden village feels completely original. There’s atmosphere to spare alongside a handful of genuinely creepy moments. At a time when the studio often felt like it was desperately trying to be relevant, Vampire Circus is a simple yet extremely effort horror movie that holds up to multiple viewings.
6 – Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)
Another loose adaptation of a classic literary horror source, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a surprisingly good effort from the British horror studio. Though its gender-swapping play on the material is dated, there’s plenty of effective shocks here that still work. Director Roy Ward Baker – another frequent Hammer collaborator – mixes a classic ‘corrupted doctor’ story with bits of Jack the Ripper thrown in for good measure. The result is equal parts 70s Hammer blood and a well-paced thriller with a genuinely suspenseful finale. Both Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick are excellent as the titular ‘Jekyll’ and ‘Hyde’ here. And since Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is early 70s Hammer, you can expect some gratuitous nudity.
5 – Brides of Dracula (1960)
Though it’s the first sequel in Hammer’s Dracula series, The Brides of Dracula doesn’t actually feature Dracula himself. Christopher Lee sat out this one out, but Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing. In addition, long-time Hammer Films collaborator Terence Fisher returned to direct. Filling in for Dracula, David Peel more than capably steps up as the undead Baron Meinster. In fact, Dracula’s absence actually works to the sequel’s advantage. Across its first 20 minutes or so, The Brides of Dracula benefits from mystery around its villain. Cushing is charismatic and dashing as expected. And Fisher films a couple of stand-out series moments including the ‘birth’ of one bride and one of the best makeshift crucifixes in vampire movie history.
4 – Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Hammer Films released Plague of the Zombies about two years before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Contrary to Romero’s game-changing zombie movie, Plague of the Zombies retains the Haitian voodoo roots while eschewing the flesh-eating stuff. Nonetheless, this Hammer effort clearly influenced some of Romero’s aesthetic choices in his depiction of the walking dead. Comparisons aside, Plague of the Zombies holds up as a genuinely spooky effort that proves the British studio could success without Lee or Cushing in a movie. And John Carson’s Squire Clive Hamilton is one of the better villains not named Count Dracula or Baron Frankenstein.
3 – Horror of Dracula (1958)
No, you can’t beat the original. Following the success of Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Films resurrected another Universal Monsters property. Horror of Dracula brings together everything that made Hammer horror work so well. Lush Gothic sets. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. A dramatic, sweeping score. Literary purists may take issue with the liberties Horror of Dracula takes with the source material. Hammer Films always played pretty fast and loose with Dracula’s mythology. Yet it’s the different take on Stroker’s novel that’s half the fun. This is classic old-school horror and still one of the best of Hammer Horror.
2 – The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Here’s a rare horror movie where Christopher Lee doesn’t play the villain. One of Hammer Films’ best movies just happens to be one that doesn’t have “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” in its title. Based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, Lee plays Duc de Richleau, an occult expert, who sets out to rescue a friend from a devil-worshiping cult. The Devil Rides Out is Hammer at its best – supremely atmospheric and eerie. Watch for the appearance of Baphomet – the goat-headed demon – summoned during a ceremony. It’s arguably the movie’s best scene. Perhaps the only complaint about The Devil Rides Out is that the final act feels more than bit drawn out, thus killing some of the movie’s pacing.
1 – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
This is the one that started it all. And it absolutely belongs on the top of this list. Yes, The Curse of Frankenstein is pure Hammer horror. There’s Cushing and Lee in front of the camera, and Terrence Fisher behind it. Lurid technicolor blood. A very loose re-telling of a classic horror story. While Horror of Dracula is also a classic, The Curse of Frankenstein is much more tightly paced. Even for vintage horror there’s fewer lulls in the action. Some of the scenes still retain some power to shock. Most importantly, Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein remains the best incarnation of the character. It’s Cushing’s constant presence in the sequels that made Hammer’s Frankenstein seriously consistently watchable.
One thought on “Hammer Films: Ranking the Studio’s Best Supernatural Horror Movies”
How about the Vault Of Horror? I write horror screenplays. I wonder what is happening with the new Hammer Films?