Book Review: Hammer Fantasy and Sci-Fi

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Review: Hammer Fantasy and Sci-Fi / Author: Bruce G. Hallenbeck / Editor: Denis Meikle / Publisher: Hemlock Books Limited / Release date: Out now

Hammer Fantasy & Sci-Fi is one of the latest books from Hemlock Books, a new independent publisher specialising in genre-related film titles.

Best-selling author Denis Meikle (A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, Vincent Price: The Art of Fear) set up Hemlock only a few short years ago and the company already has an impressive list of titles under its belt including David Tappenden’s Fright Films, Mind Warp (an account of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures) by Christopher Koetting and Bruce G. Hallenbeck’s The Hammer Vampire. With more quality titles in the pipeline (include X Cert - a retrospective of 1960s and 1970s British Horror Cinema by Beasts in the Cellar author John Hamilton) Hemlock is rapidly becoming one of the best genre film publishers around.

Bruce G. Hallenbeck’s Hammer Fantasy and Sci Fi does not let the side down. Part of Hemlock’s series on British Cult Cinema, it’s a comprehensively written, meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated account of the science fiction and fantasy movies made by Hammer between 1949 and 1971, spanning Dick Barton Strikes Back to Creatures The World Forgot. Most people, of course, associate Hammer with horror films, but as Hallenbeck makes clear, the legendary British company also produced some of the most important science fiction and fantasy films of the 1950s and 1960s, including the immortal Quatermass films, prehistoric saga One Million Years BC (starring Raquel Welch) and the H. Rider Haggard classic, She. Hammer also employed some of the most talented film-makers then working in Britain: directors Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment) and Joseph Losey (The Damned, 1963) and writer Nigel Kneale. Not to mention actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both of whom did their stint in the fantasy movies as well as the horror ones. Then there are legendary special effects technicians: Les Bowie, Jim Danforth and, of course, Ray Harryhausen. All are featured in Hammer Fantasy and Sci-fi.

Bruce Hallenbeck certainly has the credentials to write this book. He has been writing on the subject of Hammer since 1981, and is one of Hammer’s most important historians. This is his second book on Hammer for Hemlock, the first being the aforementioned The Hammer Vampire.

Hallenbeck expertly guides us through the history of Hammer fantasy and sci-fi movies starting from the early radio adaptations of the Dick Barton series, through to the hiring of Terence Fisher for two fascinating films, Stolen Face (1952) and Four Sided Triangle (1953), to the groundbreaking adaptations of the BBC dramas, The Quatermass Xperiment, and Quatermass 2. Hallenbeck discusses lesser known works such as The Abominable Snowman (1957) and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) alongside these classics. As well as a historical overview of these films, Hallenbeck offers a wealth of background detail into their production. He zooms in for a closer look (with Denis Meikle) at two particularly significant films of the 1960s: Losey’s The Damned and Quatermass and The Pit (1967), films which offer two very different views of the cold war and impending ‘apocalypse’ of the 1960s.

Then there are the ‘luscious babes and lost worlds’ of films like She (1965) which saw Hammer arguably at the peak of its success in the mid-sixties. In contrast to the Ursula Andress box office smash, Hammer also produced lesser known fare such a Slave Girls (1966) and The Lost Continent (1967) during this period and, again, Hallenbeck offers a detailed background of these minor entries. By the end of the 1960s Hammer was pushing the envelope in terms of sex and on screen nudity, much as it did in terms of gore in the 1950s. Hallenbeck’s book culminates with a glorious account of the making of prehistoric classics One Million Years BC and the arguably superior When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1968). Animation fans, in particular, will love this chapter as it has ample discussion of Harryhausen’s contribution, as well as that of his successor Jim Danforth. Finally, Moon Zero Two illustrates Hammer’s gradual phasing out of science fiction, unable as they were to contend with big budgeters like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moon Zero Two has a growing cult following though, and Hallenbeck’s is one of the few in depth pieces ever written on the film.

Throughout the book, Hallenbeck places Hammer’s fantasy and sci-fi films within the context of the genre as a whole, explaining what was going on in the field before, during and after Hammer’s sci-fi and fantasy films. He makes a convincing argument for Hammer’s place of importance in the development of science fiction and fantasy film – something often overlooked because of their eminence within gothic horror. Hallenbeck makes us realise that without One Million Years BC there would be no Jurassic Park!

Along the way he also gives a very enjoyable and fair evaluation of each film’s merits. He doesn’t make any great claims for the likes of Slave Girls or Creatures The World Forgot (1971) but on the other hand he makes a convincing case for the qualities of the often maligned Moon Zero Two (1969).

There is also a highly informative section on Journey into the Unknown, Hammer’s short lived foray into science fiction television for ABC that lasted seventeen episodes. It was cancelled due to lack of network interest and erratic scheduling on British television.

All film entries are given full cast and credits in an extensive filmography.

All in all, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Hallenbeck and Meikle. The book comes complete with some rare behind the scenes production photographs and a lovely mid-section of colour photographs, including posters for films like Spaceways (1952), X-The Unknown (1956), and The Abominable Snowman (1957).

It’s unthinkable, then, for anyone interested in Hammer and Science Fiction not to have this book in their collection!

You can visit Hemlock books here.

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