X the Unknown, for the uninitiated, is a science fiction film from Hammer Films, released in 1956. Starring Dean Jagger as an atomic scientist, the film is concerned with a blob-like threat that thrives off nuclear energy. Scripted by Jimmy Sangster, and directed by Leslie Norman (following the sudden departure of Joseph Losey after filming had commenced).
Originally Hammer / Exclusive Films had conceived the project as a direct sequel to their smash success The Quatermass Xperiment, itself based on a popular BBC serial by Nigel Kneale. Once Kneale got wind of the plan, he refused permission, and Hammer proceeded to develop the project with a thinly-disguised alternative lead character instead of the continued adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass (well, until Kneale scripted an adaptation of Quatermass II for them).
The film was originally a co-production between Exclusive Films and Sol Lesser’s RKO in the US, with RKO lined up to distribute in North America, until their fortune faltered and the film was picked up instead by Warner Bros.
Over the years, X the Unknown has been repeated on television fairly regularly, and has been released on laserdisc, DVD and finally restored in HD for Blu-Ray, with several releases around the world including Shock Entertainment in Australia and Scream Factory in the US. The print you’ll see in HD is sourced from an original Warner Bros US release, and is more than serviceable. But overlooked to date on every release is the fact that this differs significantly from the original UK release by Exclusive Films in one crucial sequence – the opening.
In the print you’re more than likely familiar with, X the Unknown opens with captions played out over a scene of an empty quarry, backed to a rousing, menacing James Bernard score. Once the credits end, the music cuts and the shot moves to take into frame a soldier with a Geiger counter, scanning the mud. Its quite an effective jump and moves us into a sense of eerie emptiness and a work in progress.
Here’s the sequence as it plays out on screen:
Back in 2011 Icon Films released a series of Hammer titles to DVD. Following a warehouse fire, the masters to the previous range of DVDs in the UK produced by DD Home Entertainment were lost. And so, Icon resorted to whatever masters they could get their hands on – mostly much older. The fans, noticing the drop in picture quality and restoration between the DD releases (which appear to have used the same source material as the Anchor Bay discs in the US and Anolis releases in Germany) and the new Icon discs, were outraged and disappointed. Perhaps understandably.
However, unnoticed by just about everyone, the copy of X the Unknown wasn’t a sub-standard version of the WB print, but an old SD video taken from an original UK Exclusive Films print. The quality featured a notable drop, but I was excited, for surely in the UK, this film ought to be sourced from a country-of-origin master?
The Icon disc included BBFC X cert card, the Exclusive name, and a slight text variation in the credits themselves. Curiously, while the US print bears a copyright line for Sol Lesser, the Exclusive print omits a copyright line entirely.
The significant change, is something quite different.
In the US prints, the music starts as soon as the Warner Bros logo appears and continues throughout the credits sequence. In the UK Exclusive print however, after an initial sting as the film’s title appears onscreen, the music suddenly drops away. And instead we are left with the sequence playing out over a wild track. You can hear the sounds of the quarry, some birds. Its still, its eerie. And it puts us right into the zone of discomfort even before we see the soldiers on their exercise.
X the Unknown is a film that plays with very little non-diegetic music overall. It allows those uneasy silences and stillness to play out, emphasising the remote nature of the Scottish landscape where events unfold. The decision to cut the music right from the start is very much part of the mise-en-scene of the picture.
Here’s the sequence from the Exclusive print for comparison:
Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, the rest of the sound cues throughout the film are exactly the same between the two prints. It is possible that there are visual cues that differ, but watching the two prints back to back this week, I couldn’t spot them.
What is clear, however, is that the Exclusive print is darker overall. This is probably the result of a soft transfer onto SD video at some point in the 1980s from an old, tired, release print of the film – possibly even a 16mm print rather than a 35mm. However, while at times, it is a little too much like peering through mud, I do think there’s an argument to be made for darkening any future restoration. The night sequences in the Exclusive print, do appear to take place at night – the shadows loom large like a film noir. With the current HD Warner print the night sequences are a little over-lit. Similarly, the special effects shots seem a little more convincing in the dark – when we can’t see the join.
X the Unknown deserves a proper restoration, alongside its spiritual brothers The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II. And taken from original UK elements where possible. (Paging the BFI!)
The BFI archives hold an original 35mm negative, along with multiple positive prints and a digital master (although I’m not clear if that digital master is taken from Exclusive or Warner Bros source material). Therefore it would seem hypothetically possible for a remaster built around the original UK/Exclusive elements should be possible.
As an addendum : Curiously in the early hours of Sunday 13 October 2013 the BBC screenedX the Unknown in a unique hybrid. The broadcast included the Exclusive Films title at the front, but from that point on used the existing WB print source for the rest of the film. Completists may have thought they’d been treated to a clean original UK print, but sadly not.
I prepared a comparison of the opening and closing captions of the Exclusive and Warner Bros prints later that day and sent the notes to my former line manager at Hammer (I’d by this point stopped working for the company), Nic Ransome, who had been overseeing a major restoration project for Blu-Ray, in case it was of use. At that point, X the Unknown wasn’t lined up for an HD restoration however. Those comparisons are below for reference. The one clear difference is on the production team credit card. The final “A Hammer Film” card comes from the close of the film and is not part of the opening sequence.
Before I began work on my PhD officially, I started working out an outline of ideas and tried to solidify the framework that would steer the project.
The following is the text of a paper I first presented as part of the Irish Postgraduate Research Seminar at Trinity College Dublin in 2008. To generate interest in the project, I recorded an audio version for my first podcast – The Box of Obfuscation. As the conference proceedings were not published, and the podcast has long since been taken down, I’m reposting the text below. The research has been supplemented a lot since then, but the gist remains the same. I’ve left it almost entirely as originally delivered, adding a couple of clarifying comments in square brackets.
The title, “Is THIS a Hammer Film” is a play on the words pasted across pre-production artworks by the company to help sell their features and assert their brand. The question form serves to highlight some of the more unusual titles in the catalogue. Please note, as this paper was not reworked for publication, it is without citations.
Is THIS A Hammer Film? – Debating the Criteria for a filmographical study of Hammer Films
Hammer has established its name as the producer of horror films, primarily between 1956 and 1976, however the company’s history goes back more than 20 years prior and their production slate includes a great deal of non-horror material. Despite the vast amount written about Hammer, scholars (Kinsey, Pirie, Meikle, Hearn) still remain in disagreement about which films can/should be regarded as Hammer films. Even Hammer themselves conflict in their claims, with two different current “official” filmographies available to researchers.
This paper draws on ongoing research which has informed both the published filmography on the official Hammer website (www.hammerfilms.com) and in the compilation of my own book on the company [Originally commissioned as a complete history, it has evolved into the current research as of 2021]. It seeks to explore the complexitites involved in formulating an accurate and complete list of Hammer films and to break down the confused and misleading area of authorship in light of nearly 80 years of exhibition, production, development and acquisition. It seeks to suggest that there is no such thing as a “typical” Hammer film and that until an authoritative filmography is compiled, we cannot adequately understand the company and its creative development.
The question of exactly what makes a Hammer film is one which has been debated by critics and fans of Hammer alike. The question is one which encompasses issues of authorship, style, and ownership and as such has never adequately been answered.
This paper is the result of several years of research – research that is ongoing – examining the complex history of the British film production company Hammer Films. It engages with the confused and misleading authorship of many Hammer film titles arguing that there is no such thing as a “typical” Hammer film and until an authoritative filmography is compiled, we cannot adequately understand the company and its creative development.
At the outset I should explain my specific involvement with this subject. I have been compiling a book on Hammer for the last couple of years – a book which will take the form of a filmographical study complete with production data and critical analysis. [The scope has altered slightly, but the same approach is largely in place with the current project] With the exception of Johnson and Del Vecchio’s 1996 publication Hammer Films An Exhaustive Filmography, nearly all of the existing published studies of Hammer have concentrated on the horror and fantasy films with which the company is best known for. It is my intention to appraise not just the horror films, but every single Hammer film ever made. With this in mind, one needs to have an accurate and finalised list of productions to work with.
Whilst writing the book I have also been working directly with the present incarnation of Hammer Films on a variety of projects including their official website. Central to this is a production archive which details each of Hammer’s previous and current film projects. Having been provided with an official list of Hammer properties by the Hammer management it quickly became apparent that discrepencies exist between Hammer’s internal list of properties and those agreed on by various scholars over the years. This fact was compounded by the publication of another list in the official history of Hammer – Hearn and Barnes’ The Hammer Story, published in 1997 and revised in 2007. There are two conflicting official lists and numerous other unofficial lists, all of which disagree in part.
With Hammer once again financing and producing new films, the question of just what makes a Hammer film has never been so pertinent. I would argue that popular responses to the question show a surface awareness of trends within a certain limited body of Hammer’s work which unduly influences their expectation of the rest of the company’s output. But in order to understand the essence of Hammer as a production entity it is vital to grasp a complete awareness of their production history and for that we need to be able to agree upon the canon of Hammer films.
As this is a deeply complicated issue I would like to break the topic into three main areas. The first is of style, the second of authorship, and finally that of ownership.
Earlier this year  I taught an Open Learning course at Queen’s University Belfast on Hammer Horror and raised the question of what makes a Hammer film during the first class (it is incidentally a question I have asked on occasions on Hammer film fan online discussion boards, and the answers are largely the same). Drawing largely on thematic and stylistic observations Hammer films generally include stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. That Vincent Price is also regularly mentioned is a problem which I shall address in a moment. They tend to be gothic horror stories, set in period costume and filmed in colour. There is often a creepy house and an omnipresent wood. And they are resolutely English – with the contrast between the aristocracy and peasantry key to the films’ narrative.
Whilst many of these trends are indeed present in many Hammer horror films, it is neither a binding trend for all Hammer films, and nor are they exclusive to Hammer itself. Often the mistake is made of assuming that any film with Cushing or Lee in it, for example, is a Hammer film, for they are the most prominent of Hammer’s stars. Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man is often cited as a Hammer film thanks to the presence of Christopher Lee.
It has often been said that the Hammer productions had a “family” feel, with both actors and crew returning time and time again, and the temptation is to look at the involvement of family members to qualify a Hammer production. The realities of the situation are somewhat different, with Hammer employing a range of people on single picture deals. Further, Hammer employees could work on other films, providing an aesthetic that is virtually indistinguishable from a bona fide Hammer production. The American’ financed Amicus in particular made a deliberate attempt to ape Hammer’s style with the casting of Hammer’s actors, as well as directors like Freddie Francis. How do we view then something like Tyburn’s Legend of the Werewolf (1974) which not only stars Cushing, but was written by Anthony Hinds, part of the original Hammer family.
To concentrate on Hammer’s horror output is to be persuaded by journalistic shorthand rather than any considered evaluation of the company itself. It was certainly horror which brought Hammer international success and wealth, and would provide a backbone which continues right up to the present day, but it was not horror on which Hammer developed, and nor would horror ever be the sole concern of the company.
There are over 250 titles (on which we can agree) in the Hammer catalogue, of these there are perhaps 53 titles (excluding television stories) which could be thought of as vaguely horror. There are in the region of 25 comedy titles, which is still a significant percentage of the total product. Whilst some fans of the Hammer brand might be quick to distance themselves from Hammer’s On the Buses (1971), comedy would provide a lucrative strand in Hammer’s production in the 1970s, much as it had in the 1940s and 1950s.
It is perhaps a case of Hammer’s own rebranding of its image in the years subsequent to its decline in the 1970s, that we are left with the impression that Hammer is a horror film company only. The slogan “Hammer House of Horror” has been used as a shorthand for British horror for years, with Hammer using it themselves at least as far back as 1966
Hammer’s official history book (Hearn and Barnes’ The Hammer Story) concentrates almost solely on the horror product, with the first 20 years of the company’s development limited to eight pages. Similarly, historians including Denis Meikle and David Pirie tend to ignore the non-horror films in their extensive Hammer biographies. And so the myth is perpetuated that Hammer is horror, and nothing else.
Feeding on from this is the complex issue of authorship of Hammer films. The dominant tendency within film studies remains in the belief that the director of a film is the author. In legalistic terms (at least with regards to copyright) the author of a film is a mixture of writer/director and producer. However, when looking at a Production company rather than an individual talent, such arbitrary assignments are unhelpful. And so, we look for the onscreen declaration that this is “A Hammer Film Production” to verify the authorship of the film.
An investigation of the various Hammer filmographies produced in the last 30 years reveals a significant amount of variance between the lists. But more than this, there are particular titles which remain in dispute between scholars regarding their authentic Hammer status.
David Pirie’s A New Heritage of Horror features a comprehensive Hammer filmography, but it omits any mention of 1960 comedy feature Sands of the Desert, and neither does Wayne Kinsey’s otherwise meticulous Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years. And yet the title does feature on both of the official Hammer lists. An inspection of the film itself reveals no names of familiar Hammer personnel, and Hammer’s name does not appear on the credits anywhere. Instead the credit goes to Associated British Picture Corporation, and production took place at Elstree rather than Hammer’s own facilities at Bray.
Despite not having an onscreen acknowledgement, Hammer invested 50% of the film’s budget and still receive residual payments today. It thus seems likely that there are more films which Hammer has invested in over the years which were not acknowledged onscreen. The paper records are incomplete, particularly with regards to the period pre-1949. Choosing a known financial involvement in a production as a way of legitimising Hammer status is also problematic. By 1964 Hammer was very much a company for hire, with most of the money for the films coming from the likes of Columbia and Universal. A prime example is The Evil of Frankenstein in 1964. It bears an onscreen Hammer name, was shot at Bray Studios, directed by Freddie Francis from a script by Tony Hinds and starring Hammer’s leading man Peter Cushing. It is in every essence a typical Hammer film, except the budget was provided by Universal. So whilst Hammer undeniably provide the facilities, and craftsmanship, their expense in the project is negligible. To suggest that The Evil of Frankenstein is not a Hammer film is unthinkable.
There is also a large body of films which were produced by Exclusive Films in the period leading up to 1958. Exclusive Films like Hammer were controlled by the families of Carreras and Hinds, and as Hammer’s sister company were inextricably linked to Hammer for many years. Hammer would serve as the production arm and Exclusive would distribute, although this distinction is not always clear, and both company’s mastheads can be seen, such as in the opening credits for the 1936 film Song of Freedom. [The original release was distributed by British Lion. The print currently on DVD and Hammer’s YouTube is from an Exclusive re-release]. The two business were run in tandem, and projects would move from one company to another –and as such, it is generally accepted that Exclusive productions (as opposed to Exclusive distributed productions) should be placed alongside the rest of Hammer’s production output. Certainly the Hearn/Barnes filmography takes this stance, as do most of the others.
Another peculiar example of questionable authorship is the 1980 television series Hammer House of Horror. During production of The Lady Vanishes the year before, Hammer were declared bankrupt and the company was effectively wound up. Producer Roy Skeggs formed a company called Cinema Arts International and licensed the Hammer name from the receivers in order to make the television series, and as part of the same deal a theatrical version of sitcom Rising Damp. While the series carries the Hammer catchphrase as its title, and sports an “in association with” credit at the end of each episode, the series is effectively not a Hammer production, though few would agree with this contention. What may seem like a case of semantics bears a pertinent point if we examine the status of the Rising Damp film.
The Cinema Arts International productions are not generally thought of as Hammer productions, and it seems that all the scholars agree on this point. However, I would contest that we should view Cinema Arts as part of the Hammer group of companies, much the same as we view Exclusive as part of Hammer. Skeggs appears to have moved projects between Hammer and Cinema Arts once he bought control of Hammer from the receiver. Scripts such as Vlad the Impaler (which originated in Hammer in the 1970s) are touted throughout the next two decades as Hammer projects, and yet the draft script from 2000 is a Cinema Arts project once again. Potentially things are more complicated when Hammer is sold by Skeggs to a private consortium in 2000 and Cinema Arts continues independently for three more years, but it also appears that the Cinema Arts projects produced in the 1980s are transferred to Hammer at some stage prior to the 2000 takeover. According to the official list supplied to me by Hammer in 2006 and again in 2007, Hammer have rights in both Cinema Arts films, Rising Damp and George and Mildred.
In consultation with Marcus Hearn, who had previously been involved in Hammer’s archive during the Skeggs era, it was agreed that the Cinema Arts projects should not appear on the online Hammer filmography, as it is misleading. However, this remains a confused issue – if Hammer have an interest in a project, whether they were the production name behind it, then a public filmography ought to include that information. At present the official Hammer site does not allow for a detailed discussion of the merits of ownership of productions – something which I am attempting to remedy with my own study.
Wes Walker’s two part series The Corporate House of Hammer , published in Little Shoppe of Horrors 17 and 18 presents us with a vast array of company names used by the Hammer family between 1934 and 2000, hinting at titles which need to be re-evaluated and examined afresh to determine their eligibility for Hammer production status. Neither onscreen declaration of ownership nor evidence of financial involvement in a film has proved completely satisfactory for classification purposes.
This does however lead into the pertinent discussion of Hammer’s acquisition of properties during its lifetime. It is this which has prompted so many problems with an accurate assessment of Hammer’s output. The transfer of rights from Cinema Arts to Hammer is the latest in a line of transfers which obscure the accuracy of Hammer’s holdings.
If we look at the earliest days of Hammer’s existence, Exclusive Films was in operation alongside Hammer, acquiring short films and second run features for distribution on the independent circuit. Exclusive remained in business until the early 1960s (an exact cut-off date for Exclusive’s activity is hard to pinpoint with any certainty, for the company remained active on paper at least for some time after it stopped distribution). Further research is to be conducted into Exclusive’s involvement in some of the short films it acquired in particular, for some of the films do not bear either the Hammer or Exclusive name, but are owned by Exclusive and are passed on to Hammer in perpetuity in 1966.
One such example is the Irish-made tourist film O’Hara’s Holiday, produced by Peter Bryan under the auspices of his own company Peter Bryan Productions. It is United Artists that register the right to distribute the film with the BBFC in 1960, but Hammer are passed on the rights from Exclusive in 1966. So whilst Hammer own the film today, there is some uncertainty at present regarding the involvement at the time of production.
Much clearer is the presence of a television pilot about Robin Hood entitled Wolfshead. The pilot was originally produced for ITV network LWT in 1969 before Hammer bought the pilot outright circa 1971, with the tv series listed on Hammer’s own production schedules. In this instance Hammer becomes the distributor much as Exclusive had done before it. There are prints of the film in existence with the LWT logo, and there are prints with the Hammer Films name (and address). There is a strong argument that this is then not a Hammer film, as any investment in the piece is after the fact – Hammer are not the originator nor creative force behind it, but without Hammer’s claim it would be orphaned and presumable forgotten.
By now it should be evident that the perception of Hammer as the originator of horror films should have been called into question, but more importantly we must ask ourselves again how we can assign credibility to these films.
The result of scholars and historians examining the horror and fantasy product of Hammer in great detail, and giving only a cursory mention of the non-horror material has been to provide a skewed reading of Hammer. More, it has facilitated an injustice, neglecting the diversity of Hammer’s production slate. I concede with Miles, who posted on the Hammer Films Yahoo group in April  that
“Regardless of the many genres Hammer worked in, it’s the horror genre that it’s primarily known for (Hammer horror). And it’s the horror genre that is the sole reason investors bought the name and created new Hammer. I don’t expect to see TV spin-off comedies and travelogues coming from new Hammer any time soon.”
But that is precisely my point, we expect Hammer today to be a horror producer, because that is our perception of Hammer in the past. Hammer’s historical output would allow for a much wider remit of low-budget filmmaking which ultimately may be more creative than the restrictive binds of a horror-only slate. The very first Hammer film is a now lost comedy, The Public Life of the Henry the Ninth, made in 1934. In the 1970s Hammer made almost as many comedies and thrillers as they did horror, and their last film in 1979 was a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
It is somewhat beyond the confines of this discussion, but each of Hammer’s films must be seen in the context of the productions that surround it. To look at 1959 feature The Mummy without also looking at Don’t Panic Chaps, The Ugly Duckling or Never Take Sweet From A Stranger, which were also made by Hammer that year, is to airbrush history. The relative lack of success with some of their other work in comparison with the horror films may contribute to the emphasis on horror. The critical baiting by the press over Never Take Sweets explains why Hammer didn’t make more message films, but it is vital that we understand that Hammer tried and experimented with different genres and types. The presence of the other films may somewhat diminish the idea of Hammer as a strong brand of quality filmmaking, but simultaneously the presence of flops only serves to emphasise the standards of some of their best known pictures.
Compiling a definitive list when there are gaps in the paperwork and the terms of criteria are changed from one title to the next depending on a multitude of factors, only serve to make the task all the more impossible.
Finally it would be remiss of any film historian not to investigate the entire picture where possible. There are parallels between films which can only be drawn if we allow ourselves to look at everything that Hammer made – themes which proceed the wave of horror productions, but which continue throughout their existence, there are actors and craftsmen who recur between Exclusive and Hammer and become synonymous with the company (people like Michael Ripper, or Jimmy Sangster). To understand that relationship we must consider everything, including the debated titles.
[It has been 13 years since I first delivered the paper, and published the podcast, but the essence of the discussion remains the same. I hope that the forthcoming book will help clarify some of the questions, but also open up new titles for consideration as part of the Hammer canon. I welcome any discussion of the points raised, either via the comments, social media or email].
Occasionally you get side-tracked down a tangential path when researching. The document equivalent of the wikipedia hole. I can recall occasions where a curious piece of information leapt out at me from the page, and prompted a diversion into another ream of files to see if anything else could be elicited.
I collect postcards among other things, and in amongst them are a small selection of Hammer related images – mostly of landmarks long forgotten. But among my favourites are those in which the Hammer element has crept in and isn’t actually the main focus of the picture.
Take for example this picture postcard of London. Its split into two via the diagonal line – in one half Westminster Bridge, the other the bustle and lights of Piccadilly Circus:
What grabs the attention for me, isn’t the fairly standard view of Piccadilly, but the poster in the bottom right hand corner. Adorning part of the Trocadero is, well let’s see if a close-up helps…
Yes, that’s a huge billboard for nothing less than the Exclusive / Hammer production Quatermass II.
The postcard itself has been colourised by the looks of it, but its still a wonderful glimpse of the famous Hammer films as part of the everyday London landscape, pocketed and sent across the world in picture form by tourists.
I managed to find another colourised postcard snap which includes nearly all the billboard:
What’s made abundantly clear in this image, is just how big a deal Hammer was making of their X certificate – a category that just a year before was perceived as a kiss of death for a film’s commercial chances. The X is worn as a badge of honour.
There are black and white versions of this view, but I’ve chosen to show the colour images because they help the imagery stand out.
The building is today part of the Trocadero centre (possibly soon to be turned into a hotel), but was from 1934 under the control of United Artists as the London Pavilion. Opened as a music hall in 1885 and used for cinema exhibition from 1908 until 1981, and is sited at 1 Piccadilly Circus. It has over the years been used to house a number of Exclusive and Hammer titles. [I was in it a few years ago when it played host to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not exhibition, blissfully ignorant of its Hammer connections].
In 1961 as part of the popular Ladybird books series for children, The Ladybird Book of London was published, with text by John Lewesden and art by John Berry. The book contains a rather lovely painting of Piccadilly at Night featuring a familiar billboard:
This wouldn’t be the last time that a Hammer horror title would make its presence felt in a book primarily aimed at children, but it is a rather lovely portrait of the city and the impact that the illuminated advert outside the Pavilion had in the evening during late May and into June 1957.
Historians deal with prime sources of a number of kinds, including oral histories, newspapers, archival records, and photographs. Its easy to forget that sketches and illustrations can be just as informative and telling primary sources as any of these. There’s as much fuzziness as some oral reminiscence, but the ‘truth’ is very much on display.
I love that with both the postcards and the book, the Quatermass branding is subtly shared with thousands of unsuspecting members of the public. How many people who saw that banner had their curiosity piqued? In the days before home video, this might well have been a tease that would take years to be sated…
I’ll share more of these sorts of images in future blog posts, and in the book. I’m always interested in seeing the marquees and displays of our favourite films – marketing is a hugely important part of the film process.