A Beloved Film Studio Rises From the Dead for 'The Woman in Black'

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Daniel Radcliffe's first major post-Harry Potter movie revives Hammer Film Productions, maker of dozens of classic horror films up until the '70s.

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Hammer Films

Many moviegoers will be looking to the release of The Woman in Black—the haunted house-thriller which opens in theater today—as a test for Daniel Radcliffe, whose leading role in the film is the first he's taken since the conclusion of the eight-film Harry Potter franchise last summer. But classic horror fans are anticipating the release of The Woman in Black as the reemergence of another cinematic force: The Hammer Productions horror film, which saw almost two decades of near-constant horror releases draw to a close in the mid-1970s.

With The Woman in Black, Hammer attempts to return to the Gothic horror genre on which it built its name. But will today's sophisticated audiences respond to a film so defiantly old-fashioned? Hammer has tested the waters by co-producing some recent American horror films—including 2010's good-but-unnecessary remake of Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In and 2011's schlocky thriller The Resident. But as a throwback British production, The Woman in Black is the first film since Hammer's reemergence that feels like it stands in line with the company's long tradition in the horror genre.

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Of course, Hammer wasn't always known for horror. The company began producing films in 1935 with a comedy called The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, and it wasn't until a full two decades later that the company would first dip its toe into horror. Hammer's first horror film, The Quatermass Xperiment, offered an impressive blend of solid acting, clever storytelling, and impressive monster makeup. But the real brilliance of the Quatermass Xperiment —a brilliance that would come to define Hammer Horror—was in its marketing campaign. The unusual spelling of "Xperiment" highlighted the film's real draw: it had been given an adults-only X-rating - a classification that had been established just a few years earlier. Hammer, unlike most studios, was clever enough to wear the new rating not as a burden, but as a badge of honor. And as curious moviegoers lined up to see just how grotesque a horror film could be, box-office success followed.

With the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer had found its niche—and at just the right time. Universal Studios, which had drawn impressive grosses for its monster movies for decades, had recently compromised the integrity of its key horror franchises with corny crossovers like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. Though Universal owned the rights to its versions of the classic horror characters, it didn't own the rights to the characters in general, and Hammer responded to the dearth of true horror movies by pumping out its own. In less than two decades, from 1955 to 1974, Hammer released seven Frankenstein movies, nine Dracula movies, and dozens more horror films to an eager public.

Hammer's earliest horror films succeeded almost entirely due to the brilliance of two British actors: Christopher Lee (seen most recently in the Best Picture-nominated Hugo) and Peter Cushing (perhaps most familiar in the United States as Star Wars villain Grand Moff Tarkin). Where Cushing brought intelligence and depth to both The Curse of Frankenstein's brilliant Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula's heroic vampire hunter Van Helsing, Lee used his astonishing range to convincingly play both the grotesque Frankenstein's creature and the malevolent, sexually threatening Dracula. Hammer's horror films depicted cutting-edge graphic violence and danced their way around censorship, offering the gut-level thrills of transgressive horror for an eager audience.

The past year seems to herald a Hammer-like approach to studio horror, with classic haunted-house setups landing in theaters with varying degrees of success.

Like most cinematic golden gooses, Hammer's successful horror franchises were eventually killed by greed. The studio rushed out an ever-increasing slew of low-quality films, banking on more violence, more nudity, a series of exclamation-point-laden posters, and lurid titles like Lust for a Vampire and Vampire Circus to draw in an increasingly underwhelmed audience. Even by the lower standards of the era, Hammer was insanely prolific, saving money and shooting time by concurrently filming different movies using the same casts and sets. With the brand flagging, it wasn't long before a new wave of American horror films—which included both highbrow fare like 1968's Rosemary's Baby and still-controversial titles like 1972's The Last House on the Left and 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—made Hammer's monster movies look old-fashioned and corny. Though the 1980s saw two Twilight Zone-style attempts at a Hammer television series, both failed; for all intents and purposes, the brand was dead.

But Hammer—like many of the monsters that appeared in its best films—has suddenly and unexpectedly risen again. It's been a strange decade for horror films, with a trio of flash-in-the-pan trends dominating the genre: J-Horror remakes (like The Ring and The Grudge), torture-porn movies (like Saw and Hostel), and—most recently—found-footage (like Paranormal Activity and last month's surprise hit The Devil Inside). But the past year seems to be heralding a Hammer-like approach to studio horror, with classic haunted-house setups like Insidious, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Dream House landing in theaters with varying degrees of success.

The Woman in Black, befitting the Hammer horror brand, is the most back-to-basics wide-release horror film in years. The rural, early-20th century setting is unapologetically Gothic. The cast is made up of a laundry list of British character actors, with Daniel Radcliffe as the only name that even approaches the A-List. Much of the film's action takes place in a spooky, cobweb-strewn mansion, and though there are near-constant jump scares, there's essentially no blood or gore.

It's the lack of gore, in fact, that represents the most significant departure from the style of horror on which Hammer built its name. 2007's Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double-bill Grindhouse deliberately aped the aesthetic of the low-budget movies that played in cheap theaters of the 1970s (and Edgar Wright's gleefully campy Don't—one of several fake trailers attached as a kind of bonus to Grindhouse screenings—was a very specific, very loving homage to Hammer horror). The Woman in Black takes a different approach—applying a modern horror aesthetic to a story so old-fashioned that it hearkens back past even the Hammer horror films, to the very foundation of the Gothic genre.

But every once in a while in The Woman in Black, the Hammer brand shines thorough. Daniel Radcliffe's lead is a dapper, articulate protagonist in the Peter Cushing vein. The "woman in black" can be traced back to Susan Hill's 1983 novel of the same name, but she's also a malevolent, classically inscrutable terror that recalls Hammer's best villains. And though the film has had a largely conventional marketing campaign, Hammer did put out one poster that stands as a brilliant homage to the lavish, hand-painted posters that heralded their films of the 1960s and 1970s.

In a three-part 2010 documentary for the BBC titled A History of Horror, actor and screenwriter Mark Gatiss explains the continuing allure of the genre:

The cinema was made for horror movies. No other kind of film offers that same mysterious anticipation as you head into a darkened auditorium. No other makes such powerful use of sound and image. The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all. Perhaps because they engage with our nightmares."

Given his reverence for the genre, it's fitting that Gatiss was the first person asked to write The Woman in Black's screenplay—and though he turned the opportunity down, The Woman in Black feels like it has the history of horror written into its DNA. It isn't a perfect movie. But like Hammer's best horror movies—and, indeed, the best of the genre as a whole—it has a certain irresistible pull that lasts even after the film has ended. If horror is, as Gatiss implies, a genre of shared nightmares, then The Woman in Black is a nightmare worth sharing.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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