Return to Goth: Simon Oakes explains Hammer Studio's revival
Since rising from the grave in 2007, Hammer Films have embarked on a new afterlife, sweeping a further infectious wave of horror across the globe with virulence. Despite a few shuffling missteps, notably the gormless zomedy of Beyond The Rave and dull, neighbour-from-hell psycho-filler The Resident, the company soon hit its stride commercially, first with Let Me In, and then on the runaway ghost-train of The Woman In Black, which rapidly became the most successful British horror to perform at the UK box office. This, coupled with remastered versions of some of the studio’s most iconic films (Dracula, Prince Of Darkness; The Mummy’s Shroud) arriving on Blu-ray, suggest a studio almost untouchable. Simon Oakes is the MC behind this revamped Hammer, president of the company and a man branding the name on the foreheads of the next generation.
What gave you the idea that Hammer Films might be worth rekindling?
The first time I started thinking about it was in the late 90s. Another group had acquired the name but weren’t doing anything with it; they had big ideas about brand intentions but no film plan. And then in 2006, I was working for a large cable television company and looking to move on: within the space of a week, I read a couple of articles that used Hammer as a vernacular – Chelsea FC’s defence was described as a Hammer House Of Horrors, women at a society party were referred to as Hammer heroines. It was clear that the company hadn’t died.
How did you approach the resurrection?
Reviving it was about making new movies and deciding what we needed to do in terms of a reboot; a lot of people thought we were going to remake the old films but we were never going to do that. The more traditional monster movies are a well-trodden path: they are what they are, of their time. So we tried to imagine what Hammer would have been like had they stayed in business for another thirty years.
Your first project, Beyond The Rave (2008), was released online, which seems a rather low-key format to announce that you were back on the scene...
I knew we already had an acknowledgement about what Hammer was amongst an older demographic, but we thought that there are going to be a lot of sixteen-year-olds who have never heard of the company. So I wanted to do some original content for a social media platform, use that as a way of exposing a younger generation to the history and the heritage. But I think we were a little ahead of our time: the platforms are more mature now than MySpace was then. And our biggest problem was that it got an 18 rating.
For your first high profile feature, you decided to rebrand one of the most critically acclaimed horrors in recent years, Let The Right One In. Why did you opt for a remake?
Well, I don’t think it’s a remake. When we acquired the rights, we knew that we had an intriguing and original take on the vampire mythology. What we didn’t know was that it would become such a cult ‘arthouse’ hit. But, at the end of the day, it still got a relatively small audience and we felt that it deserved a bigger one. Matt Reeves had a very strong take on it in where he was referencing his own childhood: it feels like the Spielbergian version of a mid-Western small town, where the extraordinary happens amongst such ordinariness. It wasn’t a cynical thing at all: the novelist, John Ajvide Lindqvist, said that Thomas Alfredson had made a great Swedish movie and Matt Reeves a great American one.
So are you embracing a more pan-Continental approach to stories and style?
It comes down to a clash of cultures. You’d have Michael Carreras [executive producer at Hammer through their golden age] who would say, ‘Give me a poster and I’ll make the movie on Monday.’ He had a methodology of getting films made, how to finance them and so forth, yet at the same time was smart enough to get people involved who were incredibly talented. We want to maintain and rebuild this. If you look at the roster of directors and actors who worked in Hammer films, it’s like a who’s who of British cinema.
And, mirroring its national cinema, it was a company that went into steep decline in the 70s...
Admittedly, Hammer comes with a lot of baggage, in more ways than one. It’s similar to the way Burberry rebranded itself: a great heritage British label, but they had that period, if you like the ‘chav’ period of the 80s and 90s. But, fundamentally, Burberry had style. So they said, ‘Let’s go back to our roots’. And I think that’s what we’ve done with something like The Woman In Black.
Ironically, the genre that was unable to sustain the appeal of Hammer during the 70s was classic Gothic, which has now yielded your biggest success. How do you perceive this shift in audience tastes over the last 30 years?
I think because we don’t play it for laughs: if you’re going to keep a suspension of disbelief you can’t mess about and create misleading avenues. I think that Hammer by the end of its run was starting to send up, maybe intentionally or not, the Gothic schematic. We were very true to the story of Susan Hill’s book in that the scares aren’t laid on with a trowel and there is a strong thematic underpinning to it. Ultimately, it worked because people love an old-fashioned ghost story.
The Woman In Black certainly favours more traditional ‘bump-in-the-night’ scares than a reliance on unsavoury gore, similar to the rest of the revitalised Hammer’s ouevre. Is this restraint a deliberate aesthetic beyond providing more accessible ratings?
It entirely depends on the story. It’s unlikely we’re going to get into what I call ‘body count’ movies or torture-porn, whatever, because I don’t think that fits the label. But we have never set out and said, ‘Right, we’re going to make a 12A.' It’s touch and go between what constitutes a 15 and a 12A film anyway. I believe one has to maintain an honesty about what 13-year-olds see today.
As you have admitted, your primary aim is to appeal to a younger audience. Do you worry about alienating the fans of the classic horror period, your old-school Hammer-heads?
Not really, because I think they came to see it. We’re not cynical about our demographics, we’re not looking at the 15-25 age group and solely considering what they do or don’t like. You just have to be realistic about who goes to the movies. I worry that some of the old Hammer fans might now go and see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel instead…
What’s the next project to be released by Hammer Films?
The Quiet Ones recently wrapped shooting, directed by John Pogue and starring Jared Harris and Sam Claf. It’s based on supposedly true events about a professor who’s a sort of maverick, who decides to create an entity from negative energy, i.e. a poltergeist. It’s a very cool script and cool environment, set in 1970s Oxford.
Cool. So, if push came to shove, what is your favourite of the old Hammers?
The Devil Rides Out probably. It’s the one I remember most as a teenager. I think it had all the right mix of Gothic, Satanic, sexy horror, and captured Dennis Wheatley’s slightly inappropriate writing. You felt it was very much alive and present in a way that the period ones did not, as if it could be happening in a house or field not too far away.