The Horror of It All: The Dynamics of Class and Power in the Hammer Gothics
By David L Rattigan
The Hammer House of Horror, the makers of quintessentially British gothic horror films, was dominated by two dashing aristocrats: Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula. Their terror was inflicted on lower-class rustic communities, but their heroic pursuers – as well as the particular pool of victims we care most about – were middle-class, treading a noble path midway between the ignorance and ignobility of the working classes and the unfettered craving for power of the upper class. These dynamics provided the general contours for Hammer time and again throughout the studio’s truly “classic” period, which I shall (to the infuriation of some aficionados, I am sure) place roughly from The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 to Taste the Blood of Dracula in 1969.
The monsters unmasked: Hammer’s upper class
The lure of wealth and power is what makes Hammer’s upper class so attractive and yet so destructive. For Terence Fisher, whose vision influenced the structure of Hammer’s world more than that of any other director, the face of evil was not repulsive, but handsome (what his biographer Winston Wheeler-Dixon called “The Charm of Evil”). Who better, then, to produce Hammer’s most venomous villains than those with riches and prestige: the upper class? They were rarely more handsome and alluring than Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula. Charming, suave and elegant, and yet harbouring demonic, oppressive forces – epitomizing the aristocracy of the Hammer universe.
He was preceded, however, by Hammer’s archetypal aristocrat, Peter Cushing’s nefarious Baron Frankenstein. Where Universal’s Frankenstein in the 1930s had been a basically good character, albeit misguided, Cushing’s Frankenstein was essentially quite villainous. Certainly there was some ambiguity – he was rarely totally without charm and wit, and occasionally appealed to some desire to help humanity – but ultimately he was selfish and murderous, unashamedly exploiting others for the sake of his work, and then exploiting his work for his own ends. In the seminal The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), for example, having impregnated his mistress, a servant girl (Valerie Gaunt), the Baron does not hesitate to leave her at the mercy of his creature (Christopher Lee) for him to murder.
In later Frankenstein films, the monsters are victims either of the Baron’s selfishness (Michael Gwynne’s affecting creature in the 1958 The Revenge of Frankenstein, and Freddie Jones’s in the 1969 Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) or of the sins of other aristocrats (the callous high-society fops in the 1967 Frankenstein Created Woman). The social dynamics of the world of the Frankenstein series are just the genesis of a recurring theme in Hammer horror, namely, the identification of the upper class – the aristocracy – as the creators of monsters. In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), the eponymous canine appears to be the monster, but the curse itself can be traced back to the ogreish and sadistic Sir Hugo Baskerville (left). It is his cruel taunting of a working-class victim (and intent to rape his daughter) that leads to his death on the moor at the claws of the much-feared Hound. The Marques (Anthony Dawson, right) in 1960’s The Curse of the Werewolf is virtually a reincarnation of Sir Hugo, for he is also a tyrant over the lower classes, whom he exploits for his own entertainment. While beggar Richard Wordsworth is the subhuman monster who rapes the jailkeeper’s daughter, it is the Marques’s inhumane treatment of him that turns an otherwise sympathetic character into the feral creature capable of such an act. The jailkeeper’s daughter in turn gives birth to Leon, the werewolf, making him too the victim of an oppressive ruling class. Interestingly, in both films the main upper-class villains attempt to exert their authority by raping a woman (the Marques intends to have his way with the jailkeeper’s daughter before she stabs him), both failing; later the youngbloods of the Hamilton Manor in John Gilling’s The Plague of the Zombies (1965) will attempt the same thing, and again fail; Baron Frankenstein, however, will later succeed in raping Veronica Carlson’s Anna Spengler in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.
In the same vein of upper-class-created monsters, Herbert Lom’s Professor Petrie in The Phantom of the Opera (1962) may murder and terrorize, but we are meant to see him as the victim. He is only driven to despair by the real monster, Lord Ambrose d’Arcy (Michael Gough), the slimy and tyrannical aristocrat who stole his life’s work.
Don Sharp’s masterful Hitchcockian chiller The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) presents us with an aristocracy that poisons the rest of society. The vampire cult headed by Dr Ravna (Noel Willman) is outrageously decadent, representative of what Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) derisively calls “the so-called smart set”. They are purveyors of disease, as Zimmer describes in terms that could have come straight from a mid-20th-century anti-homosexuality tract:
When the Devil attacks a human being with this foul disease of the vampire, the unfortunate human being can do one of two things. Either he can seek God through the Church and pray for absolution or he can persuade himself that his filthy perversion is some kind of new and wonderful experience to be shared by the favoured few. And then he tries to persuade others to join his new cult.
The Professor reveals his late daughter was Ravna’s victim, returning from the cult “riddled with disease”, and a vampire herself.
The notion of the upper classes as the carriers of an “infection” (as David Pyrie describes it) into society is later crystallized in the two films John Gilling made back-to-back for Hammer in late 1965: The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. Both films portray the ruling class primarily as oppressive rulers, with significant colonial overtones. The stories concern British aristocrats who invite a foreign menace into their communities by meddling in the culture of another country. In Plague, Squire Hamilton (John Carson) picks up voodoo rituals from the West Indies, and uses them to create zombies, whom he exploits as workers in his mine. In The Reptile, Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) interferes with a snake-worshipping cult from India, who take their revenge by transforming his daughter into a reptile. It is essentially British imperialism that invites destruction.
Plague in particular presents a complex critique of power and oppression. The Squire’s first appearance is effective not only because of James Bernard’s understated musical motif, but because cinematographer Arthur Grant films him from a relatively low angle, drawing attention to his powerful, domineering position. Elsewhere in the film, the ubiquitous high-angle shots underscore the subservient nature of all the characters (including Andre Morell’s aristocratic Sir James Forbes – one of the few instances of an upper-class hero in Hammer) to the Squire’s lust for control. These high-angle shots foreshadow the climax of the film, when the Squire is left to die, trapped in the burning mine. He is filmed from the point-of-view of his foes as they ascend in the lift. As he claws at the doors of the lift-shaft, there is an ironic role-reversal, with the power now in the hands of the oppressed.
Don Sharp’s Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1965) provides an interesting interplay between the lower and upper echelons, with Christopher Lee’s mystic peasant manipulating the Russian aristocracy to satiate his sexual and material desires. The upper class, represented almost solely by Renee Asherson’s Tsarina, is unusually sympathetic. (Although it is worth noting that females of the ruling class often have a tempering effect on the feral instincts of the males: Baroness Meinster in The Brides of Dracula does not share her son’s outright villainy, and attempts unsuccessfully to restrain him; the newlywed Marquessa Siniestra in The Curse of the Werewolf urges her husband to take pity on the beggar he is ruthlessly humiliating.) Even so, if the members of the ruling class themselves are not the monsters in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, the forces of oppression are still inherent in the very nature of the upper class powers to which Rasputin aspires.
The terrorized community: Hammer’s lower class
Given the standard representation of the aristocracy as an oppressive ruling class, it is perhaps surprising that Hammer routinely depicted the lower classes – the victimized working class – in a less-than-flattering way. More often than not the lower classes are represented by ignorant Mitteleuropean peasants bound by fear and superstition, and unable to help themselves. By contrast, Terence Fisher’s heroes were always middle-class men who combined a strong faith in the supernatural with an equally strong sense of reason, usually flanked by the extremely superstitious on one side (the peasants) and the coldly rational on the other (eg Charles Lloyd-Pack’s Dr Seward, who makes a fleeting appearance in the first Dracula film).
The villagers of Fisher’s Dracula are merely the first in a long line of spineless lower-class peasants who stubbornly refuse to help the middle-class hero in his quest to hunt down the monster, in this case Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Likewise Harry Court (Edward de Souza) in The Kiss of the Vampire is met with a conspiracy of silence from the innkeeper and his wife when Marianne falls into the hands of Dr Ravna. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965), the outspoken Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) chastises the peasants for their superstition, preventing them from staking a suspected female vampire and disdainfully tearing down the strings of garlic that hang in the inn. The tavern folk of Freddie Francis’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) will later be censured in much the same way by the Monsignor (Rupert Davies), although here the peasants are positively dislikeable, rather than merely uncooperative. At best peasants provide comic relief; at worst they are graverobbers and looters (Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell).
However, there is a handful of peasants who break the mould and run to the support of the middle-class heroes. In The Reptile (1966), Michael Ripper plays an innkeeper who is one of the few villagers not to meet newcomer Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) with hostility, instead showing an unusual amount of independence and strong character (for a Hammer peasant) by joining him in his investigation to find the cause of the mysterious plague sweeping the village.
In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the main protagonist against the Count – insofar as the film has a main protagonist at all – is Paul (Barry Andrews), a working-class student. He finds himself at odds with the Monsignor (Rupert Davies), first because of his lack of middle-class etiquette, and second because of his professed atheism. The Monsignor lacks the presence of Dracula’s earlier adversaries, namely Van Helsing and Father Sandor, and is exposed as a blustering hypocrite when he scolds Paul for owning up to his atheism, having only moments before extolled the virtues of honesty. Eventually Paul emerges as the hero, a kick in the teeth to Terence Fisher’s earlier theistic conception of the Dracula universe, and a subversion of Hammer’s tradition of middle-class heroes.
One of us: Hammer’s middle class
While Hammer’s villains were usually aristocratic and powerful, their chief victims powerless peasants, the heroic principal characters for whom the audience rooted were almost invariably middle-class. Of these Van Helsing is certainly the progenitor – firm, sensible, and most importantly (for Terence Fisher at least), straddling the thin line between an arrogant rationalism and the blind superstition of the lower classes. Although it is in general the provincial lower classes who have suffered under Dracula’s long “reign of terror”, we specifically champion the middle class Holmwood family. Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans) in The Curse of the Werewolf stands in the same tradition of middle-class heroes; Edward de Souza’s Harry Hunter and Gerald Harcourt in The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), respectively; Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) in The Gorgon (1964); Francis Matthews’s Charles Kent and Ivan in Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk (both 1965), respectively.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness provides an interesting portrayal of two middle-class couples travelling in the Carpathian Mountains. Helen’s (Barbara Shelley) prudish, middle-class sensibilities may seem like mere stuffiness, but in fact her conservative instincts are proven to be quite trustworthy. She alone of the party is alert to the dangers looming in Dracula’s castle. The decidedly looser, more easy-going attitudes of Charles and Diana (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer) – who are at home drinking among the working-class peasants at the local inn – are what costs them dearly, eventually robbing Alan (Charles Tingwell) and Helen of their lives at the hands of Count Dracula. When Helen becomes a vampire, a feral sensuality is unleashed, and she must be punished with death. As much as we might dislike her stuffiness, her middle-class propriety and sense of reserve is the one thing that might have saved the travellers from Dracula’s demonic clutches in the first place.
And yet Hammer was not averse to critiquing bourgeois society. Our ambivalence towards Baron Frankenstein is precisely because, while he has all the traits of a villain, he often finds himself against the comfortable middle classes, stuffy and self-serving old gentlemen who stand in the way of progress. He is at his most sympathetic in The Evil of Frankenstein (1963), an otherwise mediocre instalment in the series, which has little sense of continuity with Fisher’s previous two entries (it is directed by Freddie Francis). Bourgeois society in the film is corrupt through and through, with Frankenstein their hapless victim whom they simply won’t “leave alone”, as he laments. In the later Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969, a Fisher film), the Baron listens to the sanctimonious chatter of his fellow tenants as they opine about his scientific exploits, and interrupts with, “I didn’t know you were doctors.” When they reveal they are not doctors, he replies caustically, “I’m sorry, I thought you knew what you were talking about.” Despite the fact that in this film the Baron is at his most unambiguously arrogant and heinous so far in the series (hence he, not his monster, is the one who “must be destroyed”), he has no problem gaining our sympathy when he exposes the self-righteous pomposity of his middle-class peers.
The hypocrisy of middle-class Victorian England is the thematic mainstay of Peter Sasdy’s remarkable Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969). The church-going, moralistic William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen) is the embodiment of this bourgeois arrogance and hypocrisy. A brutally domineering patriarch (he attempts literally to beat morality into his teenage daughter, played by Linda Hayden), he maintains a respectable face in his community, while by night he and his companions (John Carson and Peter Sallis) indulge in all manner of vice at a London brothel. Seeking something new to relieve the boredom of week after week of the brothel, they are taken in by the youthful Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who invites them to participate in an occult ritual to sell their souls to the Devil. When the ritual goes badly wrong, the three men panic and turn violently on Courtley, whom they unintentionally murder. Their furious attack is easily seen as a projection of their disgust at their own bourgeois duplicity; Hargood has already demonstrated this disgust by forbidding his daughter from courting Paul (Anthony Corlan), the son of one of his brothel-going companions; later he will project the same feelings of self-loathing onto his daughter when he attempts to whip her.
Interestingly, when the satanic ritual backfires and Count Dracula is resurrected, he returns as much as an agent of justice and retribution on the oppressors of Victorian society as an outright villain – the pseudo-aristocratic Lord Courtley has already received his comeuppance, but the bourgeois set have yet to receive theirs. Dracula sets out immediately to pursue Hargood; and yet it is hard not to feel some ambivalence towards the Count, when his first victim has already been set up as such a formidable figure of hate.
It is perhaps not surprising that when the worlds of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein series disintegrated – having embodied a social dynamic that set the pattern for the rest of the studio’s output – the Hammer gothic genre as a whole began to suffer. Like the unfortunate peasants of its films, Hammer met an ignoble end, steadily declining into the ‘70s, with a few exceptions. The films remain a fascinating testament to a particular structure of class and power – and perhaps one that could only have been made in Britain itself.
Hutchings, Peter. Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
_____________. Terence Fisher. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
Leggett, Paul. Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002.
Pyrie, David. A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1946-1972. London: Gordon Fraser, 1973.
Winters, Joe. The Monstrous Sins of Hammer’s Upper Class. Horror-wood Webzine, February 2005.
This essay was originally printed (in a shorter format)
in Albion Magazine, Winter 2005-6