Sunday, October 16, 2011

HAMMER FILMS A LIFE IN PICTURES (2008)

Wayne Kinsey has easily cemented his reputation as The Hammer scholar (definitive article intended) with his long-running fanzine The House That Hammer Built and two splendid books on Hammer to date - Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years (Reynolds and Hearn, 2002) and Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years  (Tomahawk, 2007).
That's not to say he's the best scholar in the field, there are many who have made important contributions in various ways (Dennis Meikle, Marcus Hearn, David Pirie etc.), but his pursuit of oral history means that information that would otherwise be lost has been retrieved and shared with fans the world over.
One of the things which sets one publication above another for the fans these days, is the inclusion or rare or unseen stills. Both of Kinsey's previous books on the subject have been littered with them, and it seems to me that they have been the driving force behind The House That Hammer Built in recent years. It is fitting then, that finally someone has produced a quality book which focuses all the attention onto the Hammer imagery - the stills in fact.
Film is a visual medium, and with all that has been written about Hammer, it is very easy to forget that and get caught up in the stories about how a shot was created, or the politics of the day. Kinsey spent the best part of 2007 going through boxes of uncatalogued stills from Hammer at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, annotating and preparing for an exhibition which ran earlier this year. The collection presented so many unseen photographs demanding of publication the BFI consented to supporting this book, which brings together some 600 or so of the images (along with some supplementals from the Getty collection and some from Wayne's personal collection I suspect).
The book brings together a plethora of behind the scenes images, taken to record various scenes, for promotional purposes and so on. There's a very special craftsmanship in stills photography, and one forgets that the stills photographer was a vital part of the production crew. It would be his job to find the eight or so stills which would primarily be used to promote the film - and its his work that for most people at the time would be their first encounter with a particular Hammer production.
What is so brilliant about this particular collection is the sheer scope. I for one, have grown slightly weary of seeing the same photographs recycled time and time again, and the interminable emphasis on the horror productions above anything else. Perhaps its just a temporary bug bear for me, but Kinsey thankfully finds much of Hammer's other work of interest too, and its a thrill to see colour photography for Hell Is A City for example, alongside photographs of the crucial car crash in The Damned, presenting a photo-journalist's reality of the moment. Val Guest would no doubt be thrilled by these, which remind me of his comments on the shooting of The Quatermass Xperiment as cinema verite. In fact, that is precisely what could be said of the book. Its as if going back through Hammer's existence as a news story, a motionless fly on the wall rather than an active participant in the unfolding fiction onscreen.
It takes someone like Kinsey to annotate these photographs properly, and if any errors slip through it will take someone with a better (and probably older) memory than me to spot them. Packed to the gills with obscure names and faces, including many of the Hammer management. Kinsey's descriptions give some slight context and admirably seek to credit every individual. There's not a great deal of substance to them, and the text could be read easily in an hour or so if one takes a little time. Occasionally, the tone wavers slightly and attempts at light-heartedness seem misplaced. I found myself objecting to the sloppy witticisms that members of the crew are posing for a place in this book for example - it sits ill at ease with the otherwise scholarly work.
That said (and with all due respect to Wayne Kinsey), this book will sell largely on the basis of the imagery and not that of the commentary that accompanies the text. Fans, desperate for something fresh, will delight in the rare glimpses of a long gone era. As rightly hinted at in the book itself, the single photograph of the aftermath of the infamous sinking of the Diablo during the making of Devil-Ship Pirates is worth the price of the book alone. A story often recounted but never before seen.
Thankfully, most of the images are presented at a good size, and not left to be reduced to miniscule proportions and presented in the corner of columns as seemed to be the case with the previous Kinsey books. Rather, this is more like the size in The House That Hammer Built. [I can't really comment on image quality, as only a pdf of the manuscript was made available for review, but based on Tomahawk's previous offerings, one imagines the quality of the imagery should be very good indeed]. Perhaps the biggest shame, is that there are only a handful of pages presented in colour. With some of the tantalising stills on offer one imagines there must be more unseen behind the scenes colour photography. Either the rest isn't worth looking at, has been seen before, or is being held over for a second volume.
Limited to only 2,500 copies (presumably something to do with the BFI's normally rather expensive rate for publication of stills in their possession), this is THE book for Hammer fans in 2008. It blows The Hammer Story out of the water simply by the sheer unique quality of much of the material on offer. Its a treasure trove to delight any fan or scholar not only of Hammer, but of British film generally. This will sell out fairly quickly. Do the Hammer fan in your life a favour, and buy one for Christmas before they're gone...

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