❉ We look back on the ITV anthology series, now added to BritBox in the UK.
“The brief was very much to avoid gothic horror… A contemporary series; not gothic stuff. A much more psychological horror was the brief and something that we could do within a limited budget…We had to pull it together, make it work and get it done within a very limited time span… It was very much NOT gothic horror; not the classic Hammer Horror.”
A hugely successful film studio in its time, Hammer Films had run into financial difficulties in the 1970s having lost their American distributor. As production of films dwindled (and the studio responded too late to changing tastes, making their product seem increasingly dated) the studio looked to television as a potential market.
Anthony Read, script-editor of the series, recently recalled, “I went to see Roy Skeggs and Brian Lawrence, the two co-producers of it and…they gave me the brief on the programme and it soon became apparent to me that they had no idea what they were doing! They were film people; in fact they weren’t even producers in a film sense. They weren’t the creative end of the thing; they were the business end. So I said, ‘What’s the series going to be?’ and they showed me what they’d got, which was absolute rubbish… They had a pile of outline ideas that people had sent in, none of which really worked, and no very clear idea of where they were going. Lew Grade had bought it and commissioned it based on the title, Hammer House of Horror. ‘That’s good, that’ll sell, let’s do it’.”
Lew Grade, owner of ITC, a UK-based independent television studio, was famous for his commissioning practices (giving the go-ahead to a series based on the title alone was nothing new to him), and with the series in pre-production Anthony Read became a key part of the team:
“I said I’d write a script and when I delivered the script they thought it was terrific. Lovely! And I said, ‘What you need is someone to pull this into order because editorially you’re all over the shop. You don’t know where you’re going. You need a good story editor here to pull it all together,’ and of course they said, ‘Got any ideas? How about you?’ So I said ‘OK’, I’d take it on and loved it. When I joined, I had a pile of single page story outlines, none of which really worked within the context of the show. We then had one script, which I had written, and they were due on air that autumn. This was in the spring. I joined in April and left in early October, by which time we’d made thirteen one-hour movies. So that was how I came to be involved and it was terrific. It was one of the happiest times of my life, professionally. It was great.”
The tone would be deliberately more modern than the films the studio had been making: “The brief was very much to avoid gothic horror… A contemporary series; not gothic stuff. A much more psychological horror was the brief and something that we could do within a limited budget…We had to pull it together, make it work and get it done within a very limited time span. In many ways that’s fun to do and I certainly enjoyed myself doing that. It was very much NOT gothic horror; not the classic Hammer Horror.”
What ‘Hammer House of Horror’ finally became was indeed a very modern spin on the Hammer formula (vampires may be absent, but werewolves, Satanism, Peter Cushing and other Hammer regulars would all appear) which was perfectly suited to the hour-long (including commercial breaks) television format.
The House that Bled to Death is the episode that everyone who saw it on original transmission still remembers, mainly thanks to some incredibly strong visual moments. The idea of a house being haunted is hardly new but the presentation makes this seem very fresh indeed. British television may have produced some atmospherically spooky moments over the years, but there was very little gore and this episode changes that memorably.
Severed hands appear around the house, the family cat is slashed to pieces (admittedly, it’s clear that it’s not a real cat, but the blood more than makes up for this) and in the most shocking scene a pipe sprays blood over children at a birthday party. Lots of blood. It’s a sight which dominates the episode and proved to be the most controversial moment of the series when it was first shown. It’s also the moment that makes this episode so unforgettable. There’s a plot twist at the end which may not make much sense in hindsight (the plot of the episode doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny at all, but is that really such a problem when the episode itself is so delightfully unsettling?) but does allow for a really nasty final moment.
Emma Ridley puts in a particularly strong appearance as young Sophie and holds her own against the experienced adult actors. As much of the horror is seen through her eyes, her performance is key to really selling the episode, and she doesn’t disappoint (nor do the children in the birthday party sequence, who really convince as to the horror of the moment – there’s also a pleasingly ethnic mix to the group, which shows that although the series may not have been overly progressive in its depiction of women, it was at least trying to reflect the realities of multicultural Britain).
The House that Bled to Death may not cohere as well as other episodes, but it’s easily one of the most memorable.
Hugely popular in the United Kingdom (the series was a ratings success and is still shown on channels to this day) the series was sadly not a major hit in the United States, and the thirteen episodes are all that would be made (a second Hammer attempt at television, ‘Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense’, was made some four years later, although that was less a horror series and featured stories in a more suspenseful vein, a necessary move given the turbulent times horror was facing in the UK as politicians reacted with alarm at some of the titles available on home video).
Nevertheless, this short series should not be disregarded due to lack of success overseas: many writers today admit to being influenced by the programme, and a whole generation of viewers have grown up with some of the most memorable visual moments of the age permanently ingrained on their subconscious. Notably, as the series was filmed on 35mm, it also looks visually stunning and as a result has not dated very much at all – true, fashions have changed somewhat in thirty years, but in every other respect this seems a remarkably modern set of stories which remain compulsive viewing even today.
The series closed with a mental nightmare having presented a series of other nightmares for the preceding twelve weeks of its run. Some of the stories feature moments of horror the like of which British TV had never seen before, others feature surprisingly graphic (for the time) nudity, while others simply get on with the business at hand, which is chilling the viewer to the bone while they watch, then leave them looking over their shoulder in unease once the episode’s finished. And what more could one want from an anthology horror series?
❉ Originally broadcast on ITV, 13 September – 6 December 1980, ‘Hammer House of Horror’ is currently screening on BritBox, the streaming service from BBC Worldwide and ITV: https://www.britbox.co.uk/
❉ Alun Harris is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. The author would like to thank Andrew T. Smith for the use of the quotes from Anthony Read.
[Originally published on We Are Cult, 20 September 2016.]
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