The Art Of Hammer book review

The Art Of Hammer celebrates almost 40 years of engaging, bizarre and eye-catching movie posters from the British house of horror. Phil delves in to take a look...

You know where you are when you’re up against Dracula. Grab yourself a crucifix or a stake and you’ve got a fighting chance. Likewise the Wolfman, if you can get hold of a silver bullet and a gun to fire it from. But what to do when faced with the lunacy that is Rasputin the Mad Monk? Well, to quote from a promotional poster advertising the film in 1966, “Disguise yourself from the forces of evil! Get your Rasputin beard free as you enter the theatre! Given to Guys and Gals alike!”

This delightful piece of advice is one of the many small nuggets of joy to be found in Marcus Hearn’s latest foray into the history of Hammer films, The Art Of Hammer, a sumptuous collection of film posters that were used to promote the British studio’s varied and prolific output from 1951 to 1979.

And quite the collection it is. If you’re anything like me,this is one of those books that you’ll caress and talk softly to as you gently turn the pages, smoothing each one down as you run your fingertips lightly over the images within. It’s exactly the sort of book that you don’t really want to pass to someone when they ask if they can have a look, for fear that they’ll do that thing where they lick their fingertips prior to brutally turning each page as though they’re trying to crack a whip. As with Hammer Glamour (and I’m aware that I speak as a Hammer nut here) Hearn has produced a thing of beauty.

The book consists mainly of reproductions of the posters themselves in chronological order, with occasional explanatory text highlighting some special significance pertaining either to the film or that particular version of its poster. The reproductions are big and bold affairs printed on high quality glossy paper in dimensions of 32cm x 25cm. With one page frequently dominated by one poster, it’s an approach that really allows the artwork to make its full glorious impression. The colours are vivid and rich, while the replication of the tiniest details (such as minor film credits) is excellent.

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It serves too as a remarkable visual history of the development of the Hammer product throughout this period. As you would expect, it is the horror and science fiction films that dominate, but there are also numerous examples of artwork for the adventure, comedy and war films the studio produced such as Men Of Sherwood Forest, On The Buses and The Camp On Blood Island. The latter is particularly interesting for anyone interested in the history of exploitation cinema, depicting as it does a bare-chested Japanese prison guard brandishing a sword with which he is about to execute a British prisoner of war, all under the tagline, “Jap War Crimes Exposed!”. It’s one of several posters (including UK promos for Plague Of The Zombies and The Revenge Of Frankenstein) that seem to anticipate and inform the style and sensationalism of the artwork for many of the early 80s video nasties and would not look out of place alongside posters for Cannibal Holocaust and Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS.

But some of the real gems are the hand painted artworks created for films such as Quatermass And The Pit, The Devil Rides Out, and One Million Years B.C. Many of these were painted by Tom Chantrell, a commercial artist working for advertising firm Allardyce Palmer in Soho. They’re often glorious explosions of colour packed with incident, and much of his best work for Hammer is featured in this book. Interestingly, his iconic poster for the UK release of Star Wars was the only one to feature Hammer star, Peter Cushing.

The book also illustrates the way in which film posters were used as marketing tools in an era that preceded the mass media that we’re so familiar with today. Often the poster (along with the cinema trailer) was the primary means of reaching the audience and a plethora of superb taglines frequently implored the cinemagoer to step inside the lobby and buy a ticket. “See it with someone brave! A timeless terror to freeze you to your seat!” (from a 1957 Poster for The Abominable Snowman).

Indeed, another of the great joys of this book is in discovering such taglines as well as the alternate titles of many of the titles in foreign territories. Take, for example,e 1965’s Fanatic or, as it was more spectacularly known in the United States, Die! Die! My Darling!. And, although many of these posters may have lost their ability to shock, in many cases the strength of their immediate visual impact is still undeniable, the early Dracula and Frankenstein posters being excellent examples.

This is by no means a comprehensive collection of Hammer artwork, but nor does it claim to be. As Hearn points out in his introduction, the majority of Hammer film posters prior to 1950 are virtually nonexistent. In fact, many of those included in the book are now rare enough to sell for thousands of pounds at auction, so preserving them in one central repository for the rest of us is a welcome move.

For anyone interested in film posters in general this would be a highly recommended book, but for fans of Hammer in particular it is essential. It is a beautiful collection of film art that brings to life once again the work and craft of a studio beloved by many.

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The Art Of Hammer is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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5 out of 5