I work at De Montfort University, Leicester’s Hammer Horror archive. I recently did work experience at Leicester Mercury and managed to get a double page spread published and here it is.
Oh, the horror. Elizabeth Howlett sets foot inside the most bloodcurdling archive in Leicestershire
Mad scientists in remote castles. Makeshift monsters shuffling towards cowering victims. Christopher Lee in a billowing cape leaning over Melissa Stribling’s alabaster neck. Swirling fog. Dense woods. Creaking doors. Dungeons. Heaving bosoms. Fangs.
The mere mention of Hammer films conjures up a mish-mash of mental images, but an office in the art, design and humanities department at Leicester’s De Montfort University, it’s safe to say, is not one of them.
And yet, DMU and the iconic British horror brand have become intricately entwined. The university is the custodian of Hammer’s archive of scripts.
It’s an impressive collection – hundreds of scripts, books, production stills, posters and all manner of collectibles; a veritable treasure trove of horror history on our doorstep.
Hammer is one of the most famous of British film studios, with a name that sends shivers around the globe – not least for its three films based on the shudderingly sexist TV sitcom On the Buses.
From its beginnings in London’s Regent Street in 1934, Hammer went on to make more than 150 feature films. About 250 released and unmade films and 50 TV scripts are now being stored at the DMU’s Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre.
The growing interest in cult movies has made the collection an important part of British cinema history. Films from the Hammer collection are being re-released on Blu-ray and Turner Classic Movies are hosting a season of cult films which will feature Hammer’s She.
Hammer was a pioneer – The Curse of Frankenstein was the first major horror film to take advantage of post-war advances in colour technology. The firm had to fight tooth and nail with Universal Studios over potential copyright issues.
Their signature Victorian adaptations revived Gothic and brought the horror genre back home. Hammer took the genre from America and made it colourful. Audiences could see the gore in all its crimson glory on screen for the first time.
“It is vital that the scripts are available for use,” says Dr Ian Hunter, author of British Trash Cinema and lecturer in the first-ever university module on Hammer Studios.
“If DMU did not have them it is likely they would be bought by private buyers and disappear out of circulation. This is why the archive is so valuable.”
This rich heritage has been preserved and brought back to life by members of staff at CATH. The project has been supported by Hammer stars, such as Vera Day and John Carson (of The Saint and The Professionals fame).
The collection of scripts came into the hands of Steve Chibnall in January 2012. He’s the director of CATH and professor of British cinema.
De Montfort competed with universities all over the country to land the collection from the studio’s own archive. The university’s expertise in British cinema helped swing the deal.
“When I was growing up, Hammer and horror were virtually synonymous,” says Prof Chibnall, “and seeing one of their films was a rite of passage into adulthood.
“Of course, they liked to sail as close to the wind as possible as far as the censor was concerned, but their products were memorable and influential internationally, and have now been recognised as Britain’s most important contribution to fantasy cinema.”
Taking the collection was one thing, though. Sorting it was another matter entirely. The archive – comprising an estimated 300 scripts, including Hammer classics such as the Satanic Rites of Dracula – took more than two months to catalogue.
Frustratingly for any horror buff, the collection is incomplete. Over the years, many scripts have gone missing from the Hammer stores and although some have recently been recovered, the original 1958 film Horror of Dracula – the first colour rendition of Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel and a film that rebooted the horror genre – has yet to be unearthed.
This gaps in the collection haven’t dampened interest in the archive, though.
“The archive has caused a lot of interest in America, where a great number of people are keen on the films,” says Prof Chibnall. “In fact, we have had more interest from California than anywhere else.”
It’s been a labour of love for the horror-loving academic, who has added more than 500 posters, books, VHS/DVDs and memorabilia from his own Hammer collection.
Hollywood film buffs have been poring over the scripts and other international guests are due to follow.
One well-known Hollywood director – unnamed, alas – has expressed an interest in taking a post-graduate degree at DMU, drawn in by the lure of the Hammer archive.
The collection has also proved to be an attraction for academics closer to home. One student has completed a Master’s degree using the archive. A PhD is also in the pipeline.
Although the content was initially provided for post-graduate research, they may be readily available to a wider audience at a later date.
The archive, which contains scripts dating back to 1947, is bolstered by the Jimmy Sangster Collection, with material from the private study of Hammer’s most famous scriptwriter, gifted by his widow, the actress Mary Peach.
But the hunt goes on for more horror keepsakes.
“An original British Dracula poster is extremely rare and can easily be sold for £3,000,” says Prof Chibnall. “If the archive were to have such a rare asset to its collection it would be invaluable to De Montfort University as well as the CATH Centre.
“If anyone out there wishes to donate to the collection, please get in touch with us, you never know, someone could be sitting on a fabulous Hammer collection.
“Hammer is no longer regarded as ‘embarrassing’ or ‘the black sheep’ of film. It has become central to how we understand British cinema and culture.” says Dr Hunter.
“Ten years ago I would have paid about £10 for a Hammer poster and now they sell for thousands. Cult British cinema has become a substantial and important part of our culture.”
Meanwhile, Hammer itself is making a comeback in 21st century cinema.
Recently, the studio has revitalised its brand with the release of The Woman in Black and Let Me In, which reminded the world that The Hammer House of Horror hasn’t lost its ability to give us a good scare.
Info: The DMU Hammer archive is open to the public (for an arranged fee) and anyone interested should contact Prof Steve Chibnall at De Montfort Universities CATH centre for more information.
There is also a link to read the article online so check it out, and enjoy!