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Book Review: ‘The Art Of Hammer’ Is Horrifyingly Good

Book Review: 'The Art Of Hammer' Is Horrifyingly Good

One of the many pleasures to be had watching this fall’s under-seen vampire gem “Let Me In,” was catching a glimpse of the new Hammer Films logo. The British horror studio, which specialized in sexy, stylish Technicolor horror romps, had been dormant since the mid-1980s (after their “House of Hammer” television series ended), so it was a thrill to see them back. But even more than that, the logo made your jaw drop. Somewhat similar to the Marvel logo, it featured classic Hammer movie posters flitting by inside the giant, bold letters (accompanied a classy bit of music by composer Michael Giacchino, dubbed “Hammertime” on the official album).

Which is to say: Hammer Films almost always had really, really cool art – lurid one-sheets full of beasts and breasts and all sorts of nefarious goings-on, and seeing those again, however briefly, on the big screen was a big kick. So it’s even more of a thrill to talk about “The Art of Hammer: Posters from the Archive of Hammer Films,” a luxurious coffee table book that allows you to pore over some of the best and brightest posters the studio has to offer (tidily encapsulated in its heyday from the early ’50s to late ’70s).

Although the introduction, by author Marcus Hearn, states that the book is “intended neither as a guide to rarity nor as an exhaustive catalogue,” that should not diminish how exceptional a collection of artwork this book really is.

Beginning with noir-influenced artwork for Hammer films “The Dark Light” and “Whispering Smith Hits London” (posters that, the introduction indicates, have more of a noir influence than the actual movies themselves) and moving through Cold War space-race stuff like “Spaceways” (which looks like an advertisement for a ride in Disneyland) to adventure time frivolity like “Men of Sherwood Forest,” the book keeps a counter of the year at the top of the pages, so as you progress through the book, you’re also progressing through time. It’s a handy tool and much appreciated, something that more poster art books could use.

The book really kicks into high gear, though, with posters for beloved sci-fi oddity “The Quartermass Xperiment,” with its striking artwork and kicky tagline “No terror ever like…” These pages also highlight one of the greatest aspects of the book: whenever possible, Hearn will include international pieces of artwork. Here, the Polish poster for ‘Quartermass’ is replicated, complete with a trippy starfish (that looks a little like Justice League foil Starro) and simplistic rocket.

While the films from the studio’s horror-filled heyday do make up an abundance of the book’s primary thrills (look at that glowing beast’s eyes on the “Hound of the Baskervilles” quad), there are moments where the cleanliness and artfulness of some of the campaigns is really felt. For instance, there’s a wonderful poster for “The Curse of Frankenstein,” which is a white page, with a photo of a woman screaming in the top right-hand corner, with the rest of the page filled with text: “She’s seen “The Curse of Frankenstein!” Soon You Will Too!” You’ve got to love how assured the wording is: it’s only a matter of time before your face looks like this poor woman’s.

Not all of the images selected pack quite the same punch, although they are almost all fascinating (like the bizarre, totalitarian look of France’s poster for “Quartermass 2“). Even forgettable movies seem to have at least some captivating artwork: look at the images for “The Camp on Blood Island,” a mostly forgotten war picture that promised “Japanese War Crimes Exposed.” So extreme was the combination of images and words that the London Poster Advertising Association Censorship Committee (kind of mind boggling that such a body even existed) “banned it from appearing in any outdoor locations in the capital.” Additionally, the British Transport Association “also blocked it from display in buses, the Underground, and railway stations.” The images were re-jigged in an effort to appease the public, although the accompanying note states that the negative reactions to the film and its ad campaign would “damage Hammer’s reputation for years to come.”

But, chances are, if you pick up “The Art of Hammer,” with its gorgeous cover art depicting Christopher Lee‘s Dracula and no less than four comely lasses underneath his supernatural spell (including one whose nipples are clearly visible), you’re here for the horror poster art. Thankfully, the book does not disappoint, both in the number of images it reproduces and in its tactful, intriguing commentary.

The text on the posters is often telling. Take one for Christopher Lee’s first outing as Dracula, which features a tan background, a striking image of him grabbing a woman, but more than that, a spiel falling down the left side of the poster that says: “Every night he rises from his coffin-bed silently to seek the soft flesh, the warm blood he needs to keep himself alive!” The film’s title is in red, as is the disclaimer “Don’t See it Alone!” And the only other words are a giant, bold X and, in smaller letters: “Adults only,” as if this poster wouldn’t appeal to any 13-year-old kid worth his or her salt.

You get to see loads of double-bill ads, and posters from every region and in every shape. The US posters (Hammer struck distribution deals with almost every major domestic studio, including American International Pictures) are mostly sub-par, although there is a striking poster for “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.” It features a black and white photo of a busty young woman with two pink bandages on her neck. Underneath the title of the movie is a parenthetical phrase: “(Obviously)”.

What’s also interesting to see is both the studio and the format’s move away from illustrated poster art work to stuff that incorporated more photography and photo montage (and not just in the US posters, although it’s fun to compare Britain’s illustrated poster for 1971’s “Countess Dracula” to the lamer, photo-based US design). The Japanese poster for “Creatures the World Forgot” (also from 1971) forgoes subtlety and suggestion all together for the raw image of a topless cave girl. Speaking of topless girls, what is better than the French poster for “Dracula A.D. 1972,” which features 3D lettering of the title (although, with the delay, it became “Dracula 73”) and naked girls both lying down and standing on said 3D letters? Commencing eBay search… NOW.

By 1976, illustrated flames still licked the poster for “To the Devil… A Daughter,” but the rest of the image was a tacky black-and-white photo job. The last poster image in the book, though, for the “troubled 1979 release” of “The Lady Vanishes” (which co-starred Cybill Shepherd and Angela Lansbury) is one of the book’s most striking (by Jock Hinchliffe): a painting, which looks like a combination of both oil and water-color, with steam rising out from the top of a train engine, vanishing into the distance, like so much poster art before it.

If you’re a fan of poster art, or Hammer Films, or gorgeous coffee table books that will, at the very least, start a discussion, than “The Art of Hammer” should not be missed. While even more text, providing even more context, would have been appreciated, this was clearly more of a celebration of a very distinct style of artwork and a very distinct period of cinema that will make you long, even harder, for such painterly compositions (and groan even louder at the Photoshop disasters you see in the theater lobbies each week). This stuff is good; scary good. [A-]

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