“Only a sick society could bear the hoardings, let alone the films.”
– Derek Hill (in regards to Hammer films and their output), Sight and Sound 1958-59
The above quote, which opens Marcus Hearn’s Hammer movie-poster book, The Art of Hammer, is indicative of the content contained within. Judging by the artwork Hearn has collected, it’s not hard to see how Hammer gained such a tawdry reputation. From half naked women to fully-nude women to ghouls, vampires, murderers, psychopaths, mummies and any other monster one could possibly imagine, the posters’ single aim seems to be at appealing to the most lurid and primal impulses. As such, I – of course – found myself quite taken with the collection.
The Art of Hammer focuses primarily on artwork produced from 1950 to 1979* for the production company; a majority of which are British or American in design with a sampling of Belgian, Italian and French posters as well. Sifting through the posters certain trends become apparent. The posters themselves can almost be thought of as cultural artifacts – revealing if not the thoughts and minds of previous generations, then most certainly the media’s interpretation/designation on such matters. In much of the 1950s artwork, women are displayed in the arms (i.e. protection) of strong able-bodied men. Any other depiction of women during this period usually involves them in various states of undress as they shriek in terror at some malicious threat or persona.
Male protectors are nowhere to be found in the artwork implying women left on their own are liable to be terrorized or, worse, assaulted by god-only-knows-what. The artwork for Curse of the Frankenstein, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Mummy and Dracula being the most obvious examples of such a trend. The monsters terrorizing the women in these posters are all uniformly male. However a gradual shift can be seen in the artwork at around the mid 1960s. The poster for 1960’s Hell is a City features the stereotypical woman-clutching-to-a-male’s-shoulder, but instead of burying her face into the male’s chest or looking at him longingly, the female depicted stares out bored, uncomfortably – as if to say ‘will this guy ever just leave me alone’. From thereon out, pictures become racier.
Where once the women would wear loose fitting lingerie, now the artwork foregoes any clothing at all for them. These tawdrier depictions are representative of a more dominant role for woman in the artwork – most noticeably seen in the renowned One Million B.C. poster. For those unfamiliar, Raquel Welch, in cavewoman lingerie, poses against the backdrop of various dinosaurs – unafraid, ready to take on the prehistoric creatures, no male assistance needed. In addition, the once uniformly male monster becomes interspersed with female counterparts. Artwork from such films as The Gorgon, The Brides of Dracula, The Reptile, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde – all feature female monsters terrorizing men, children and women indiscriminately. My favorite example being a one sheet for a one eyed evil Bette Davis film The Anniversary, which features Davis wearing a black eye patch as she looks disapprovingly at a young couple about to get it on.
Besides gender codes, The Art of Hammer is also fascinating in its depiction of wartime related artwork. These posters are filled with images of well formed, muscular men in either a submissive position to a foreign threat or in a state of solemnity, head cast down, defeated. 1959’s Yesterday’s Enemy poster features two soldiers black in white contrasted against a stark green rainforest background. The two soldiers fire against an unseen enemy fruitlessly. One soldier appears to be in his final death throes; the other cowers on the ground screaming at the enemy. In the poster for 1958’s The Camp on Blood Island, an American soldier bows his head in front of a Japanese soldier, awaiting the enemy’s blade to behead him. There are many other genres and trends represented within The Art of Hammer – comedy, romance, noir, science fiction – all of which are well worth analyzing and marveling at.
In addition, the Hammer films feature some of the best taglines ever put to poster. Below, because I can’t help myself, a brief sampling of my favorite taglines collected within The Art of Hammer.
1. “They called me BAD spelled M-E-N!” – from the poster to Bad Blonde (a.k.a. The Flanagan Boy)
2. “This is positively the only photograph we can show you!… Because we refuse to reveal the story’s shocking qualities.” – from Taste of Fear (a.k.a. Scream of Fear) whose poster features a single close up of Susan Strasberg screaming, her mouth agape in horror.
3. “I spy with my little eye something beginning with SEX… and I mean to put a stop to it.” – from the Bette Davis headlining The Anniversary.
Upon finishing Hearn’s book, I was struck by a deep sense of melancholy. For there were just so many films, so many titles that I had never even heard of, yet alone seen. Never has my film knowledge and credentials been so thoroughly put to the test. Staring at the names above the poster titles – the forgotten stars of yesteryear: Albert Lieven, Barbara Peyton, Michael Ripper*, Eric Porter, Julie Ege – I wondered who these people were, if anyone in fact remembered who they were? I wondered if these posters were the last artifacts of their existence; the only memento left proving that they had once lived, once mattered. Many of the films featured in The Art of Hammer are no longer readily available in print or video. Were these posters all that was left of them? And what of the films not included within the book? I thought of the old adage “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
If a film is made and no one is around who remembers it, does it really exist at all?
*Hammer was actually producing artwork for films well before the 1950s but the artwork during the period could not be found – a fact, which is quite disheartening.
**Per The Art of Hammer, Michael Ripper appeared in more Hammer films than any other actor. A quick search on IMDB proves this to be true – Ripper has over two hundred credits to his name.