I must begin this review with a confession: I have known Bruce Hallenbeck, the author of The Hammer Vampire and The Hammer Frankenstein, for about 20 years now. "Known" seems a misleading word, however, as we've never met in person. I first came into contact with Bruce due to a letter I had written to the magazine Fangoria regarding the absence of Hammer films on home video in the United States. At that time, most of the key Hammer films remained out of reach, and those that were available were often compromised in one way or another. In those pre-internet days, it was wonderful to find somebody who shared my passion for these films and we maintained a steady correspondence until around the end of the decade. After that, we lost track of each other for a time - and indeed I lost track of my passion for Hammer for a time, as my interests expanded into the realm of Italian and Spanish horror - until the wide world of Facebook brought us back into contact with one another. I guess it would be unreasonable to expect me to have a truly objective and impartial view of the work of somebody I've been on good terms with for so long, but... I'll give it a try, anyway.
Bruce's overviews of the subject matter in these two books is comprehensive and passionate; it's truly the work of a fan who has devoured every bit of information he can on these films and their production histories. The Vampire Film is probably the more ambitious of the two texts, simply because Hammer experimented so much more with that genre than they did with the Frankenstein saga. Not only do we get an overview and critique of all seven "official" entries in the Dracula series (that is: [Horror of] Dracula; Dracula Prince of Darkness; Dracula Has Risen from the Grave; Taste the Blood of Dracula; Scars of Dracula; Dracula AD 1972; The Satanic Rites of Dracula; Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires - in other words, the ones that actually had the character of Dracula in them!), but there's also information and critical analyses of such popular titles as The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire, Vampire Circus and the "Karnstein Trilogy," comprised of The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Hammer certainly knew how to offer variations on a theme and this comprehensive study gives ever title their due.
The Hammer Frankenstein covers a smaller terrain, as the series was only seven strong and didn't inspire any real spin-offs, but don't let that deter you: there's plenty of information in store here, as well.Both books provide a nice recap of the background of the novels which inspired these popular films - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula, naturally - and also offer a good, pithy overview of the treatment of these subjects in the cinema from the silent era to the modern day. The books also contain forewords by veterans of their respective franchises: Jimmy Sangster, the screenwriter who helped to offer up a tighter, more modern treatment of Dracula, pens the foreword for The Hammer Vampire, while still-beautiful Veronica Carlson (the imperiled heroine of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Horror of Frankenstein) contributes to The Hammer Frankenstein.
Hallenbeck's prose is smooth and easy to follow throughout. His enthusiasm for the films comes across in a genuine and unaffected manner and while I do not always agree with his assessments of the individual films - indeed, if I had one criticism to level, it's that I simply think he's too easy on some of these films! - there's no denying that he's a skillful writer who knows his stuff. Hallenbeck also had access to production documents and original scripts, thus allowing him to point out the way that directors like Terence Fisher deviated from what was on the page. The critics who argue that Fisher was simply a working hack who shot whatever he was given should be given pause here, as Hallenbeck clearly outlines some subtle but crucial changes that he implemented in the filming: if he had stuck with Sangster's script and allowed Christopher Lee to make his grand entrance as Dracula in the 1958 original with the top hat and visible fangs which were specified, there's a damn good chance that Hammer Horror may have been struck dead, right then and there...
Both volumes have been published in the U.K. by Hemlock Film and are to be brought out in the U.S. by Midnight Marquee Press. I cannot comment on the Midnight Marquee editions as I've not had the opportunity of seeing them, but the Hemlock books are handsomely designed and feature a nice mixture of the familiar and the rare with regards to images. All told, these books - and Bruce's Hammer Sci-Fi - belong on the shelves of Hammer enthusiasts.
Find out about Troy Howarth's revised and updated 'The Haunted World of Mario Bava' here: