Ready for my Close Up: Hammer Horror

The curse of this thing is the Technicolor blood: why need vampires be messier eaters than anyone else? – Criticism to the British Board of Film Censors on viewing Dracula (1958)

Horror has crept under our skin and is currently racing through our veins. We’ve become a culture obsessed with gore, fear and more importantly, fangs – as vampires become an increasing cultural obsession it’s no coincidence that they happen to be the supernatural beings with the most sartorial flair. Who wouldn’t risk a brush with death for one night as a fangbanger? And we’re equally responsible this side of the Atlantic. The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson’s West End screamathon Ghost Stories recently extended its run due to popularity, and Mark Gatiss’s equally chilling ‘History of Horror’ on BBC4 garnered great reviews.

No wonder the time is ripe to resurrect a horror classic. Hammer Films have been dragged back from the grave, their first feature of the millennium being Let Me In (2010) – a remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In, swiftly followed by Wake Wood (2011) and The Resident (2011) which fittingly features a cameo from Christopher Lee.

Due to hefty investment, Hammer is fast becoming a cross-platform content producer, keen to capitalise on their heritage as a great British brand. And what a heritage they have. Founded in 1934, it wasn’t until the mid ’50s that they had their first run-in with horror, the sci-fi classic The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) which became an unexpected hit.

Their next endeavour, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) saw the first ever pairing of  Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing which would become the stuff of horror legend. As Hammer’s first gothic (rather tha sci-fi) horror it cemented the Hammer formula that would last until the ’70s, and along with the next two films Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), served to create something of an unholy trinity for the Hammer studios; it marked a resurgence in gothic horror that hadn’t been seen since the equally iconic pairing of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff twenty years earlier. (For more on Hammer’s Frankenstein series see this comprehensive post.)

The use of colour technology had moved on considerably since the early ’30s, which gave Hammer a gory edge over its monochrome predecessors. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was the first film to show blood in a graphic way – bright red, and not afraid to ooze, drip and splash. Audiences went wild.

The joys of Technicolor. Dracula: Bela Lugosi in the 1930s, with Peter Cushing as his gorier British counterpart 20 years later. The same scenario for Frankenstein: Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.

As tastes changed in the late ’60s and ’70s the Hammer formula began to look staid, and became almost a parody of itself. Psychological horrors like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) were becoming more sophisticated, and subjects turned to inner demons rather than old-fashioned monsters. Instead of toning down, Hammer did the opposite and upped the kitsch-stakes, increasing the sexual content and churning out glorious  lesbian-tinged trash-fests like Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971), which have since been hailed as camp cult classics but signaled the death knell for Hammer. The company finally ceased production in the mid ’80s.

Horror films have provided rich inspiration for designers, especially those of a somewhat macabre sensibility (McQueen without horror would be like Cavalli without leopard print – the Savage Beauty retrospective at the MET is evidence enough). With the Seventies trend in full swing, it was only a matter of time before the rustic Paganism of films like The Wicker Man (1973) was referenced, as highlighted on Threadbared in the Pamela Love presentation. Last year saw the ultimate fusion of fashion and horror as Rodarte were asked to collaborate on the costumes for Black Swan (2010). The resulting controversy aside, the Mulleavy sisters have had a long-standing interest in horror-aesthetics, taking Japanese horror films as a starting point for their A/W 2008 collection.

Rodarte A/W 2008 from

The recent exhibition of Gothic style at the FIT featured an eclectic array of designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and the inevitable McQueen, and told us how important fashion is to create a dark aesthetic; From its origins in 18th century gothic literature of terror to its contemporary manifestations in vampire literature and cinema, the gothic has embraced the powers of horror and the erotic macabre.  Throughout its history, fashion has been central to our vision of the gothic (see more here).

Mourning dress and hat (1870s); Dior evening dress inspired by the Marquis de Sade and the French revolution (S/S 2006); Kazuko Ogawa Gothic Lolita dress from Japan (A/W 2008). From Gothic: Dark Glamour at the FIT

The designer Maaike Mekking took inspiration from cult ’70s blood-fest films for her S/S 2010 ‘Contemptation’ collection. In true ‘first comes the blood, then comes the boys’ style, she shot an edited selection of the collection being drenched in blood (featuring yours truly).

Pictures by Keith Martin

Dario Argento horror films such as Suspiria (1977) and Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) were the key inspirations, featuring a chillingly chiaroscuro combination of black, white and red.

Film by Konstantinos Menelaou. See more at the Maaike Mekking blog

The film also starred rock ‘n roll baker Lily Vanilli who is also known for her macabre aesthetic. Author of A Zombie Ate My Cupcake! Lily’s baked goods are a far cry from the ubiquitous powdery pink, twee cupcakes on offer just about everywhere else. Lily offers a far more interesting selection, from body parts and tombstones, to beetles and her infamous Bleeding Heart Cakes.

Irresistible. Red velvet sponge, cream cheese frosting and blackcurrant and raspberry blood. These beauties are now available at Lily’s new bakery at 6 The Courtyard, just off Columbia Road in East London.

With horror influencing everything from fashion to baking and music, it seems  the resurrection of Hammer Films is a timely affair. And with Topshop getting in on the Freddy Kruger action, you know it’s a trend that’s not destined to die a natural death.

About Amber Butchart

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian working across cultural heritage, broadcasting and academia. She has contributed to numerous productions for the BBC, Sky Arts and Channel 4, from Making History and Woman’s Hour to Great British Sewing Bee, and she presents a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A museum covering areas from Shakespeare to David Bowie. Her latest book 'Nautical Chic' is the first ever book to chart the history of high style on the high seas - looking at the influence of maritime dress and history on our wardrobes - and has been featured everywhere from Grazia and Glamour to The Telegraph, The Guardian and CNN. She is an Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, and has given public talks as far afield as Dubai and Ukraine. Shot by Vogue as a girl with great British style, her interest in antique clothing was ignited by working as Head Buyer for vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, and for 5 years she was a regular contributor to leading trend analysis company WGSN. She has also worked with top brands such as GHD, TK Maxx and YSL Beauté, providing her historical expertise on their public campaigns. As the red-haired half of the Radio Academy Award-nominated DJ duo The Broken Hearts, she has graced stages across the globe for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton, and has co-presented weekly shows for Jazz FM and QRadio. A former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, Amber is regularly asked to speak on fashion and cultural history, and has done so at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, British Museum, Royal Academy, British Library, Wellcome Collection, Design Museum, British Film Institute, and is a regular on the SHOWstudio fashion week panels. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Association of Dress Historians.
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