Why film critic Mark Kermode likes Peter Cushing
With hindsight, it is easy – perhaps too easy – to be critical of Hammer films. An obvious example of this would be the sort of comments made by a couple of reviewers when we did a documentary on Radio 2 that looked at them seriously – running along the lines of “Very good, but the programme invested the films with more gravity than they deserved. Let’s face it, they were rubbish, weren’t they?” and “Oh yeah – Hammer films – they were so terrible, so camp and so tacky . . .” They weren’t.
Admittedly, Hammer did make its fair share of bad films, particularly in the later years when they ran into production line stuff. However, they also made brilliant films like Quatermass, the original Curse Of Frankenstein, Dracula, as well as bringing some conceptually challenging ideas to the cinema, like Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb which I think is a really interesting, dark and strange movie.
In my opinion, they made enough groundbreaking films to justify them receiving critical acclaim, and so I find it really annoying that people can be so uninformed and dismissive towards the Hammer legacy.
In fact, these people do not know anything about the films and cannot contextualise them. Sadly, it’s blinkered vision that says “Oh yes, Hammer films – ha ha ha – all horror films are stupid, but Hammer films are particularly stupid.” I disagree. There was a wealth of good things there.
When Curse Of Frankenstein came out, people were scared. When The Quatermass Experiment came out, people were scared.
Nobody had seen a film like that before. Nobody had seen a film with a great big amorphous heap of tripe twirling its tentacles about. At the time it was absolutely terrifying. The Quatermass Experiment, using a great big ‘X’ on the title, became a selling point for Hammer. Their attitude being “A lot of people don’t want this sort of thing, but we are going to grab the bull by the horns and make a movie that will scare the pants off you.” And it really did.
When British cinema was at the height of its production in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when we were really churning it out, the majority of films made were comedy and horror. That’s what we did well. We exported these films world-wide, and they were brilliant.
It is funny that people forget that when the British film industry was really thriving, it was those type of movies that really made the money. While Hammer were working off in some shitty little farmhouse somewhere, making films that were the pariah of the industry, it took somebody a long time to sit up and say “We had better give them the Queen’s Award, because actually they’ve just become our most successful export.”
The heritage of Hammer movies is very important. It is very important in terms of the development of British cinema, and in terms of the development of the horror movie per se. You now live with a generation of film-makers who grew up watching horror. People who make horror films now watched Hammer films at a crucial point in their lives, and it influenced them, changing the way they saw the world and movie-making. This is why one should never mock what Hammer films did. Despite the various criticisms levelled against them, they have left a behind a rich and influential cinematic legacy.