Hammer House of Horror
A personal recollection
Jason Brawn reflects on one of the most important British television horror programmes of his childhood, Hammer House of Horror...
Forty years ago, Hammer Films, in association with Cinema Arts International and ITC Entertainment, produced thirteen standalone episodes of terrifying television titled Hammer House of Horror.
Broadcast at 9:30pm on Saturday nights, the series marked Hammer’s third foray into television having previously attempted and failed with the unproduced Tales of Frankenstein in 1958 and 10 years later, the moderately more successful but largely forgotten Journey into the Unknown.
I remember being a seven-year-old horror nut glued to the TV set, which, at the time, only had three channels and there was no remote control, let alone a VCR.
The date of the first episode, Witching Time, was 13th September 1980 and featured a pre-broadcast advertisement for The Shining. As I recall, my family had recently moved into a Victorian terrace house in Leytonstone and we eagerly awaited this new programme from Hammer.
Now, Saturday evening television was primetime viewing for tens of millions of viewers across the country and to have a Hammer Productions television show was the perfect treat for horror fans like myself. The moment LWT announcer Hilary Osborn introduced Hammer House of Horror in her eerie tone, silence fell in the lounge as the ATV logo lit up the screen.
The first image of the series; a dolly shot from someone’s point-of-view, creeping towards a female victim in a period costume who suddenly turned to scream at the camera. This was followed by the most memorable of title sequences; twilight shots of a Gothic manor, juxtaposed with a spooky theme tune by Roger Webb and the title card: Jack Gill Presents. I knew that I was in for a treat. That haunting title sequence with the silhouette figure of a man mounting the tower steps, holding a candelabrum through an ogee-topped window.
I soon discovered that the pre-title sequence was, in fact, a tease, enlightening millions of viewers that Hammer was now eschewing their established classic period style for a contemporary setting.
What I remember most clearly about this episode was the character Lucinda Jessup (Patricia Quinn), a sex-crazed 17th-century witch who’d transported herself to the present day in order to escape a witch-burning, and taking control of the vulnerable David Winter (Jon Finch) and his isolated farmhouse in rural England. My early memories of witches were crones flying around on broomsticks and having cats as familiars. In this episode, Lucinda had no familiar and didn’t fly about in a broomstick, and she certainly wasn’t a crone.
When it was over, I wanted more but faced the agonising wait until the following Saturday for the next instalment, but when the weekend finally arrived, episode two wasn’t what I expected at all. This was when I began to understand exactly what an anthology show was. I’d expected a continuation of The Witching Time, but I was about to discover the joys of standalone episodes.
The Thirteenth Reunion, about a secret society of cannibals running a health farm, featured a strong and dark EC comics-type ending. I was hooked. Watching Hammer House of Horror became my Saturday night ritual, not just for me and the family, but also for my classmates at primary school, which would always dominate our Monday conversations during break time.
The episodes that followed included such intoxicating titles as The House that Bled to Death, The Silent Scream, Children of the Full Moon, Visitor from the Grave and The Two Faces of Evil.
Supernatural tales of witchcraft, black magic, voodoo, vengeful ghosts, werewolves and doppelgangers, sat alongside real-world stories of serial killers and confinement. The series gripped the nation and producer Roy Skeggs spoke of children writing to him about how terrifying they found the show and, most importantly, how they wanted more.
A second series was commissioned and scripts were duly written, promising another thirteen episodes of thrilling terror. But the series failed to materialise. Why? Because Incorporated Television Company (ITC) head Lew Grade had pumped millions of own his money into a doomed film project Raise the Titanic (1980). The film was one of several disastrous decisions that saw Grade eventually lose control of ITC and ultimately ended Hammer House of Horror as a going concern. It was another four years before we saw another Hammer anthology show, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense.
Hammer House of Horror was repeated twice during the eighties (1981 and 1986-87). I can remember it being broadcast on Monday evenings after The Kit Curran Radio Show, and I would try to stay up and watch it. This time, though, I wasn’t quite as terrified but would replay the story and theme tune in my mind at school the next day.
Unable to purchase it on Channel 5 Video in 1987 with my meagre pocket money, the show later became a VHS rarity and I had to wait over a decade for someone to make a copy of the complete series for me to re-watch again (and again). It’s safe to say, Hammer House of Horror had a profound effect on me growing up.
While every episode is highly enjoyable, to my mind there are only two outstanding episodes that are flawlessly written and acted; The Thirteenth Reunion and The Silent Scream.
The former is the most suspenseful and creepiest entry in the series, featuring Julia Foster as a Woman’s Own-type journalist turned investigative reporter infiltrating a sinister health farm, (filmed at Hampden House, later used in Children of the Full Moon and Guardian of the Abyss.
In The Silent Scream, a young Brian Cox portrays an ex-con offered a second chance by Peter Cushing with a job looking after his pet shop during the old man’s absence. This ostensibly generous offering, however, comes at a price. Cushing, in his final Hammer role, is excellent as a manipulative former SS captain, who has something particularly sinister in store for his subject and Cox’s partner, played by Elaine Donnelly. This psychological tale explores themes of entrapment and being a prisoner at your own comfort.
Other stories, like The Children of the Full Moon, contains the same setup as Hammer’s earlier classic, The Kiss of the Vampire (1963). The episode follows a newlywed couple whose car breaks down en route to their honeymoon, Lost in rural Cornwall, they soon find a Gothic house to stay for the night, occupied by a large family who literally moonlight as werewolves. The great Diana Dors plays the cunning matriarch with fiendish plans for the bride.
Occult themes abound in The Witching Time and Charlie Boy, but the finest and most realistic representation of the occult features in Guardians of the Abyss. According to Hammer legend, John Carson, the episode included real-life satanic incantations. Interestingly, following the end of his acting career, Carson became a witch doctor in South Africa
Guardian of the Abyss borrows a number of elements from The Wicker Man (1973), but it climaxes with one of the most memorable endings of the series.
The folk horror episodes are the most intriguing. These include Witching Time, The Children of the Full Moon and The Two Faces of Evil.
Producer Roy Skeggs deployed a wealth of Hammer’s finest talent for the series. Directors Alan Gibson, Peter Sasdy, Robert Young and Don Sharp; composer James Bernard; television and film actors Jon Finch, Denholm Elliot, Robert Urquhart, Anthony Valentine, Barbara Ewing, John Carson, Gareth Thomas, Philip Latham and, of course, Peter Cushing all passed through Bray during the programme’s tenure.
Hollywood certainly appropriate some of the series’ plot lines. Joe Esztherhas borrowed the basic idea for Basic Instinct (1992) from Carpathian Eagle, and I strongly believe that Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) leans a little into The Two Faces of Evil with virtually the same premise and ending.
The weakest Hammer House of Horror episodes are probably Growing Pains and The Mark of Satan, another psychological horror spin on Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, involving numerology.
Charlie Boy, meanwhile, features an interracial couple as the protagonists, a rarity on television, let alone a British horror anthology series on primetime TV, while Visitor from the Grave is a particularly creepy tale that with similarities to Les Diaboliques (1955). Lest we forget The House that Bled to Death, which employed the same hoax that surrounded the book and film releases of The Amityville Horror (1977 and 1979).
Fast forward forty years and Hammer House of Horror continues to be a conversation piece for many of the haunted generation who also clearly recall Brian Clemens’s Thriller, Nigel Kneale’s Beasts and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s contributions to A Ghost Story for Christmas.
Although Hammer shut down production ‘for good’ later in the 1980s, there was talk a decade later of a remake of Children of the Full Moon starring Lesley Ann Down, and produced/directed by Richard Donner under Warner Bros as part of a mooted Hammer relaunch. Depending upon your point of view, that it never saw the light of day is either a good or bad thing.
Today, Hammer House of Horror has a cult following – with the number of fans, old and new swelling with every passing year. Its reach has even crossed oceans; horror film historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons have recently recorded commentaries for each episode for a forthcoming Australian release.
But while the fandom is strong it’s not vast, compared to say The Twilight Zone, and largely made up of that haunted generation, who grew up on a diet of folk horror, hauntology TV classics like Quatermass, Dr Who, West Country Tales and Tales of the Unexpected, and lovers of British horror films (Hammer, Amicus and Tigon).
A number of fans of the show, myself included, have even gone as far as scouring eBay, for memorabilia including scripts titled The House of Hammer, props and preproduction material such as storyboards, various sketches by Ian Sconnes and some more recognisable items – for example, the original African idol from Charlie Boy and the severed hand seen in The House that Bled to Death.
I’m fortunate enough to own a number items from Hammer House of Horror, including the original ceremonial mask of Choronzon, worn by John Carson in Guardian of the Abyss, original FX sketches signed by Ian Scoones and several scripts, many signed by the principal cast members including John Carson, Patricia Quinn, Nicholas Ball, Barbara Ewing, Paul Darrow and Gary Raymond.
Despite the undeveloped second season, which I believe would have improved on the first, the single series of Hammer House of Horror will continue to stand the test of time.
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