Academic journal article CineAction

Notes on a Radical Tradition: Subversive Ideological Applications in the Hammer Horror Films

Academic journal article CineAction

Notes on a Radical Tradition: Subversive Ideological Applications in the Hammer Horror Films

Article excerpt

The "Golden Age" of British cinema, which lasted from approximately 1945 to 1975, witnessed the evolution of a radical and subversive cinema focused upon challenging the moral codes and conservative values of the British establishment. This was an era characterized by shifts in cinematic culture signaling the demise of the Gainsborough melodramas and the disbandment of the Archers as exemplified by the controversial Michael Powell solo vehicle Peeping Tom (1960). The emergence of Hammer studios as a major force in British cinema during the early 1950s marked a direct reaction to postwar optimism and the subsequent rise of a conservative political system. It also represented alternative artistic strategies operating in opposition to the realist tendencies of classical British cinema. Although Hammer still sustains a reductive reputation often relegating it to cult status, Peter Hutchings argues "that these films do draw upon, represent and are always locatable in relation to much broader shifts and tendencies in British social history." (1) Hammer's revitalization of the British Gothic horror tradition marked a necessary shift in national cultural identity, effectively enabling ideological opposition. Within this context I shall examine Hammer in terms of its function as a cinematic phenomenon reflecting relevant generic, cultural, and sociopolitical trends.

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The films produced by Hammer studios during its heyday from the early 1950s to the mid 1970s worked to engender progressive forms of ideological awareness through the utilization of traditional generic cinematic structures as a method through which to reflect and subvert a conservative value system. During much of this period Britain existed under conservative rule apart from brief moments of opposition from the Labor Party. Despite a slogan promising to "Set the People Free," Winston Churchill's victory in the 1951 General Election signaled thirteen consecutive years of conservative power in which individual freedom became actively restrained by a monolithic political system. Aside from censorship restrictions imposed by the British Board of Film Censors, the passing of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 effectively limited the importation and dissemination of American horror comic books. (2) Through its series of visceral cinematic models emphasizing graphic violence and sexual liberation, Hammer challenged the dominant moral codes and proper standards of good taste imposed by the establishment. In its attempts to subvert these structures, it also engendered progressive ideological forms challenging censorship restrictions and the rigid patterns of traditional British cinema.

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Although Hammer existed as a company in some form or another since 1935 and managed the production of such intriguing but timely early works as The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (Bernard Mainwaring, 1935) and Phantom Ship (Denison Clift, 1935), it was not until The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955) that the studio began to assume the collective identity it would maintain for the next two decades. Hammer had already begun to explore the science-fiction genre with such films as Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, 1950) and Cat-Women of the Moon (Roy Hamilton, 1953), but The Quatermass Xperiment marked its foray into innovative creative areas utilizing a traditional generic structure to challenge status quo ideological patterns. Based upon the six-part BBC television series scripted by Nigel Kneale, the film exploited certain cultural fears of Cold War-era Britain. On the surface, The Quatermass Xperiment resembled other sci-fi vehicles of the period from both America and Britain in terms of its thematic concerns, but formally it represented a shift toward a darker stylistic tone which would appear to greater detail within many of the later Hammer horror films. It also became one of the first films to receive the X-rating since the 1951 implementation of the X Certificate by the British Board of Film Censors. …

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