Gothic ghouls, gore & glamour: Ted Newsom’s “Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage Of Horror”

By on January 30, 2019

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours of Gothic ghouls, gore and glamour, writer-producer-director Ted Newsom’s Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror is a BBC video documentary — originally airing in two parts in 1994 — which posits that the reason for Hammer’s box office successes during the Technicolor 1950s and beyond can be traced back to the studio’s blended mix of tense eroticism and a new outlook on classic horror film conventions.

Watch this excellent remastered Director’s Cut — featuring narration by two of Hammer’s most beloved stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, known to horror film fans for their portrayals as formidable foes “Dr. Van Helsing and “Count Dracula,” respectively — on Night Flight Plus.

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“Misbegotten monsters created by science gone mad… invaders from world’s beyond our own… blood drinking noblemen… murderous mummies seeking vengeance… witches burned at the stake… ravenous werewolves… and they all lived in a little studio near London” (text from the DVD’s back cover).

Originally founded in 1934, it wasn’t until Hammer Films ventured into the realms of science fiction and horror that the studio really gained notoriety, finally breaking through with their first important horror film, 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein.

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The Hammer Films releases were thereafter notable for their high production values, solid technical work, strong acting, and intelligent writing and directing, and pretty much everyone interviewed here — including beautiful Hammer starlets like Raquel Welch, Veronica Carlson, Ingrid Pitt, Hazel Court, Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro, some of whom talk candidly about having to bare their breasts onscreen — remember their experiences with the studio with what appears to be real heartfelt affection.

This fascinating look back at the Hammer Films horror factory — which includes candid interviews, clips from theatrical trailers, photos and home movies — reveals how audiences were initially struck by the sexual explicitness on display in films like The Horror of Dracula (released in the UK simply as Dracula in 1958).

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The reason for this was that the celebrated British film studio took a more serious approach to horror, eschewing the current campier approach which could be seen in popular American-made horror-comedy 1950s features like Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

The Hammer Films horror films actually created an “insular fantasy world,” as we’re told in the documentary, instead of re-creating historically accurate representations that movie audiences had already seen and were likely tiring of anyway.

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American film director Joe Dante recalls the first time he watched the remake of Dracula, stating how impressed he was by Hammer Films’ “parade of buxom British starlets.”

These starlets include actress Nina Auerbach, who would later recall that Hammer’s vampires were “the first movie vampires to be associated with mouths rather than mesmeric powers,” additionally stating that they “turned vampirism into an immediate bodily experience rather than an esoteric endowment.”

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In addition to Dante, there are also interviews here with many more who worked behind the cameras, including Hammer producers, directors and technicians like Anthony Hinds, Michael Carreras, Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis, Val Guest and Ray Harryhausen.

Read more about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee below.

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Peter Cushing, Ted Newsom and Christopher Lee (photo courtesy of Ted Newsom)

Peter Cushing — whose acting career featured his appearance as the Baron in The Curse of Frankenstein, followed by his role-defining portrait of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula films — is heard in the off-camera narration and seen only in film clips from the theatrical trailers presented here.

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Cushing — who had a role in nearly all of the classic gothic stories plundered by Hammer during their heyday, the 1950s through the ’70s — comments that the Hammer films were “never meant to be tongue-in-cheek.”

It was this approach to the subjects with seriousness, flush with an erotic tension, which allowed the studio to recuperate the mythic power of the vampire, for instance, reviving the traditional horror character’s fortunes for a new filmgoing generation after first getting permission from Universal, who had allowed Hammer to remake their classic film Dracula.

Six weeks after completing his narration on the project, Cushing died from cancer on August 11, 1994, just prior to the second part of the documentary airing on the BBC (the program was broken up over two consecutive Saturday evenings).

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In the documentary, Lee — who played Dracula in the Hammer Films remakes, and is seen here in both on-camera interviews and film clips as well as providing one-half of the film’s narration — says he played the famous horror film character as a “malevolent hero.”

Also featured in Flesh & Blood are other Hammer actors including Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Ferdy Mayne, Christopher Neame, and Yutte Stensgaard.

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Flesh & Blood was scored by reputable British film composer and orchestrator James Bernard, best known for his work on twenty-four of Hammer Films best-loved titles, including The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Kiss of the Vampire, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and many more.

Bernard had actually retired from scoring movies in the late ’70s, but later returned to write film music for the 1985 thriller Murder Elite and also to compose the scores for TV documentaries like this film and Universal Horror, as well as composing a new score for the 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, which was broadcast on television in 1997.

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Watch Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.