Growing up with Hammer’s Legends: The Bomber Hurley-Smith interview

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words by Jane Nightshade

Born in Ireland, but with an extensive family in England and the U.S., as well as his birthplace, Donal “Bomber” Hurley-Smith is a Hammer Studios collecter, promoter, and historian. 

He runs the very active Hammer tribute account on Twitter @HorrorHammer1. He literally lives in a castle, which he had built to look like a smaller-scale replica of Oakley Court, the neo-Gothic 19th Century Castle in Berkshire that served as Hammer’s first headquarters, as well as a shooting location for many of its films.

Hurley-Smith has lived closely with Hammer Studios all of his life. As a lad (and later, adulthood), he rubbed shoulders with a variety of the horror studio’s stars, producers, and directors — including the three great horror legends, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Sir Christopher Lee. They and many other Hammer luminaries were family friends of Hurley-Smith’s grandfather, the Irish-born character actor Fred Johnson. Johnson played supporting roles in some of the studio’s most iconic films, such as The Curse of Frankenstein, The Quartermass Xperiment, The Brides of Dracula, and Scream of Fear.

Hurley-Smith, who works mostly as a music video and film producer, does a bit of acting as well. He appeared as a Manson Family member in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and as a ghost in Angels in Notting Hill, Christopher Lee’s last film. We caught up with him while he was preparing for an appearance on GhostEire, an Irish television channel devoted to all things paranormal spookery.

(HorrifiedHope you are well. Still living in the castle?

(Bomber Hurley-Smith) Thanks. I am well. I am in the castle. It is a reproduction built ten years ago to look like a smaller-scale Oakley Court, with Hammer interior design. Great way to have cornflakes every day.

(HDescribe your background, parents, schools, jobs. Where do you live now? How did you get the nickname of Bomber?

(BH-S) I’m outside of Chicago. I got the nickname from American schoolkids when I moved from Ireland to the USA. I also have half the family in England. The move was not long after the Ireland/UK. ‘Bloody Sunday’ era in the 70s. So other kids equated me being Irish with the IRA. Bombs became Bomber and it stuck for the rest of my life. When I got involved in rock ‘n roll, everyone there — of course– loved the name.

Job? Hmm, I have always done things with film and music. I never really punched a clock. In school, I was awful because I never went. I was far more interested in music and horror films (and partying). I never took a book home and still passed. I made up for that later by returning to school and getting a college degree.

My Grandfather (Fred Johnson) was from Dublin and had his career in film start late, after years of acting on stage. He ended up doing parts for Hammer, Vulcan (Amicus), and others. My Dad was behind the scenes. He did all of the jobs listed in film credits, about which you always wonder what they do…key grip, etc. My mother was a textbook author, which made my school situation very contentious.

“I remember Peter (Cushing) as very kind. (Vincent) Price was very much the same way — and generous.”

Bomber Hurley-Smith

(HYou grew up with stars like Lee, Cushing, and Price — how did they become friends of the family? Through Fred?

(BH-S) Yes. Fred was a very kind man. I don’t have many memories as he died in his sleep fairly young (71). He liked to drink…came by it honestly. As far as the legends above, they were in and out and I got to meet them ‘here and there.’

I remember Peter as very kind. Price was very much the same way — and generous. Chris Lee lived longer (than the others). Imagine my surprise hearing via the rock music circuit (i.e. from Joe Perry via The Who) when he started recording heavy metal! I think the last thing he did was a guest vocal on the Hollywood Vampires LP, on a track called “The Last Vampire” — which he did at the urging of Perry and Johnny Depp. He gave everything he had to entertainment until the very end. Chris used to live next door to Boris Karloff in Knightsbridge. He used to ask Karloff about retirement (when was it time?) and Boris always told him “I want to die with my boots on!”

Chris took that to heart and did the same thing. He never stopped — Vincent didn’t either. Peter pulled off a short retirement, which started in 1986. Chris, though, was from another era. Very kind and proper; he had a kind of majesty/royalty about him. That and he must have been 6 ft. 7 in. actual height. He was like a king or something…I can’t put my finger on it (Editorial note: On his mother’s side, Lee was descended from Italian nobility.)

I can tell you that he and Johnny Depp had a friendship. They really cared about each other. Johnny was the same way with Price. He worshipped these guys. (Hence, the work they did together.)

(HYou run a popular Twitter feed about Hammer films. Do you have an official relationship with Hammer, or are you just acting as an independent tribute tweeter?

(BH-S) I was acquainted with the first guy that bought the name Hammer (via rock n roll) since he stepped back and gave other people control. I just decided that Hammer needed a more consistent online presence. You know…fifteen tweets a day instead of once a week. Not slamming anyone, but they have many stars (besides Peter and Chris) that need to be remembered: Michael Ripper, Barb Shelley, Veronica Carlson, directors, and many others. I try to keep them on the page via photos or short films.

(HWhat are your impressions of Chris? Peter? Vincent? Other horror icons? What are some of your favourite stories about them?

(BH-S) Well, on a non-personal level, Chris, Peter, and Vincent are the modern “Big Three” of the horror film era from 1953-1980s, the Mount Rushmore of horror. Peter and Chris preferred to say, “fantasy film” instead of “horror,” but Vincent was okay with “horror.” I always think, however, that horror (1920-1948) started with Lon Chaney, Sr., Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr…I know there are many others in that era, but they are the big ones.

There are thousands of stories (about the Big Three), but I will hit on two that casual fans won’t know. (The hard-liner fans on Facebook, etc., could tell you the colour of their socks!)

I love the fact that Chis and Peter loved Looney Tunes cartoons. That was something only they shared. I love the true story that they were at a theatre in Piccadilly watching them and they were asked to leave! The story goes, it was because they were laughing too loud, which is only partially true…what REALLY got them kicked out was Chris’s voice at full-volume mimicking the characters on screen, saying their lines….disrupting the entire theatre. (And he was very loud — powerful and operatic.)

Then, of course, there’s the Boris Karloff/Basil Rathbone story. In 1939, before they became lifelong friends of Vincent, they were filming Tower of London. In the scene where Rathbone gets Price’s character drunk on Malmsey, he and Karloff were supposed to throw Price’s character in a wine vat, thus drowning him. During filming, they thought it would be funny to sit on the vat lid. Well, the lid became stuck and they had to hurry to free Vincent before he actually drowned!

(HWhat’s your favourite Hammer film of all time and why?

(BH-S) Ahh! The big question! Well…it depends on the day, I suppose. They are all so unique. So many subjects. Set design…stories. I could pick 30…easily! For today I will pick three. The Devil Rides Out Is Chris’s tour de force and it’s not even Dracula. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is Peter’s tour de force. He played evil in that one so convincingly. An outlier, The Gorgon. It has Peter and Chris, but the supporting cast is unreal — headed by Barb Shelley. You can get lost in that one.

Christopher Lee informal photo

Christopher Lee in 1967 (photo taken by Fred Johnson)

(HThe Big Three are all gone now but do you still keep in touch with their families?

(BH-S) I’m sure you mean Tina Lee and Victoria Price. No. I know where they are, but they have their own lives and for the most part, stay clear of the public. (I don’t blame them.) They seem to be fine people I hear, but I am one of hundreds of other kids they would have known in the old days. Back in those days, everyone had lots of kids. I do have a few friends from the Hammer crews etc. that I keep in touch with. Kids I saw on a regular basis. Even they are few.

(HYou’ve got an enormous collection of original films that I understand you are now digitizing? How did you obtain the films and what’s being done with the digital versions when they’re completed?

(BH-S) You mean the films that came down through the family? The 16mm prints. I hate to say, there are no real great treats in there (like the long-lost London After Midnight). There are a couple that might be considered lost (not well-known films), and I will take a look at any request there may be for them after I put them on disc. Many of the films will be Hammer films that are copies on 16mm. They have faded a bit but that can be fixed up.

I am mostly doing that for myself and then I will put the reels back in salt storage. One thing that might be of value is if I can find any parts of films that were “cut” by the British censors. You know like they just did with Dracula, restoring the death scene from a damaged Japanese print. If my copy of The Plague of the Zombies has the gruesome decapitation scene in full…that would be the kind of thing that would be useful. Just about every Hammer film had scenes that had to be cut. Today the ‘cuts’ would be child’s play.

(HYou’ve got a film out this year? What’s it about?

(BH-S) That is a Johnny Depp tour-de-force called Minamata [Editor’s note: Minamata premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February). I mean it. It is the story of war photographer Eugene Smith and his journey back to Japan to document the effects of mercury poisonings. It sounds like it isn’t that much of a story, but it is, and I am glad it is being told, especially now.

Me? Don’t blink! I’m in heavy makeup in the film, but my two seconds are good. The story is JD. He has been nominated for at least three Oscars but has never won. If this film gets the notice it deserves, I can see no reason that he should not win the Academy Award, finally. He is that good. I personally think he should have won for Ed Wood, but he was unfairly not even nominated. Chris Lee thought Johnny was a star in the mould of the Golden Age of Hollywood and went on record saying it. I remember him saying Johnny was the kind of star that there were few of anymore. He thought Johnny was truly gifted.

(HAnything else you want to say?

(BH-S) I am taking this platform to dispel the myth (much to the chagrin of a few hard-liners), that Vincent, Peter, and Chris were only casual acquaintances for the cameras and not all really friends. That is total bullshit. All three were very good friends! Peter and Chris? After Helen (Cushing’s wife) died, it was no coincidence that they made like six films together in a two-year period. Chris kept him close. Chris and Vincent? In fact, Vincent remembered Chris in his will in the form of a “special hat” — but that’s another story!


Follow Bomber’s Hammer Horror Films Twitter page

Jane Nightshade

Jane Nightshade

Horror writer for HorrorNewsNet, Horrified, and davidpaulharris.com Author of The Drowning Game, ebook on Amazon.

Buy The Drowning Game here

Hammer background illustration reproduced courtesy of Alisdair Wood

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