When I was seventeen years old, I worked for a while as a volunteer assistant teacher and houseparent at a residential school in Lincolnshire, one for teenaged boys who in those un-politically correct times were deemed ‘maladjusted’. I suppose in the less brutal terminology of today, they’d be described as having ‘behavioural issues’. One day I was sitting in the deputy headmaster’s office, chatting to him about something or other, when the school secretary stomped in. She carried in her hand – one corner of it pinched delicately between a thumb and finger, as if it was something filthy and potentially infectious – a magazine that sported on its cover the face of a savage, hairy, fanged monster.
Actually, the monstrous face belonged to Oliver Reed – no surprises there. This was how he’d appeared in the 1961 British horror movie Curse of the Werewolf. I knew this because I recognised the magazine immediately. It was issue ten of a horror-film magazine called House of Hammer. I remembered buying the same issue six years earlier, when I’d been eleven. The secretary had caught a couple of pupils leafing through a tatty old copy of this magazine and she’d promptly confiscated it.
I was about to interject – on the principle that you should be free to read whatever you want to read – with a humorous but pointed comment: “Well, that looks like the sort of magazine I used to read when I was their age!” But then the secretary wrenched open House of Hammer, issue ten, at a certain page and screeched, “Look at that! Disgusting!”
The page contained a still from another British horror movie called Satan’s Slave, which’d been released around the time of the magazine’s publication in 1977. The still showed a gruesome close-up of an actor called Martin Potter moments after someone had stuck a metal nail-file into one of his eyeballs.
The deputy headmaster gasped, “Oh my God!” And I decided that to preserve my professional reputation among the school’s staff, I’d better keep my mouth shut about my familiarity with issue ten of House of Hammer.
House of Hammer was the brainchild of magazine and comic editor Dez Skinn. In 1976, Skinn was asked by Warner Brothers Entertainment’s publishing division to come up with a new monthly magazine dedicated to horror films. While trying to think of a selling point for the new publication, it occurred to him that whilst walking to work every day he passed Hammer House, headquarters for the legendary British horror-movie studio Hammer Films, on London’s Wardour Street. So he contacted the studio, which was then headed by Michael Carreras, and got it to agree to the publication of a Hammer-themed magazine. The magazine would deal with all horror films, but part of it would be devoted to Hammer’s output. Each issue would feature a comic-strip adaptation of a Hammer horror movie and its title would reflect the connection too: House of Hammer.
Actually, I suspect that Skinn, who was primarily a comics man, had his own agenda. Although he’d worked on British children’s comics like Buster and Whizzer and Chips, it must have irked him that Britain – unlike, say, the USA and Japan – regarded comics as being strictly for children. According to the British view, anyone who read them beyond the age of twelve or thirteen must be a bit soft in the head. Skinn possibly saw House of Hammer, with its comic-strip adaptations of films that were still regarded in the 1970s as adult viewing, as a Trojan horse – a vehicle by which he could smuggle more adult-orientated comic strips into the British publishing world.
Indeed, he also persuaded Hammer to give him access to two of the more comic-book-like characters in its canon: Captain Kronos, hero of the 1974 horror-swashbuckler, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter; and Father Shandor, the gruff, bearded, rifle toting (and thanks to his being played by Caledonian actor Andrew Keir, Scottish-accented) Transylvanian monk who’d battled Christopher Lee in 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness. Skinn created spin-off comic-strip adventures for Kronos and Shandor and inserted those in the magazine too.
Finally, he rounded off each issue with a three-page strip called Van Helsing’s Terror Tales. Here, Count Dracula’s arch-enemy Professor Van Helsing, as played by Peter Cushing in the original 1958 Hammer adaptation of Dracula, would narrate a blood-curdling story that was clearly inspired by those in the old American EC Comics of the 1950s like Tales from the Crypt and Haunt of Fear.
Though I started buying House of Hammer for its film coverage, the magazine soon opened my eyes to the fact that comics were much more than a juvenile medium. In their multi-panelled, visually fast-moving way, they could be an art form. In particular, House of Hammer showcased the work of two superb artists: John Bolton, whose work was beautifully shaded and conjured up oodles of gothic atmosphere; and Brian Lewis, whose work was simpler and more delineated but equally gorgeous. No wonder Carreras told Skinn that the artwork in the magazine exceeded anything the studio had commissioned for its posters.
But the writers dealing with House of Hammer’s film material were impressive too. They included the learned cinema historian Dennis Gifford, whose book A Pictorial History of Horror Films is regarded today as a milestone in written studies of horror cinema. There was also John Brosnan, an Australian ex-patriate who was surely a busy man – he wrote several film-related tomes, namely James Bond in the Cinema, Movie Magic, The Horror People, Future Tense and The Primal Screen, and at the same time he penned horror novels under the pseudonym of Harry Adam Knight. And there was David Pirie, now an acclaimed TV writer, who’d written another seminal cinema-book, A Heritage of Horror, the first critical work to say good things about the British horror films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Plus Alan Frank, who’d written a lavishly illustrated volume called Horror Films and who later became a national newspaper critic. (All right, the newspaper in question was the cheesy, tit-obsessed tabloid the Daily Star, but it still counts as a national newspaper. Apparently.) The shelves in my bedroom, needless to say, were soon groaning under the weight of Gifford’s, Brosnan’s, Pirie’s and Frank’s books.
One other House of Hammer writer whom I liked was a bloke called John Fleming. In one of the first issues I bought, he penned a review of the 1974 Spanish zombie-horror film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue – which despite being Spanish was set in England, and despite having ‘Manchester’ in its title was set in the Lake District. The review made me uncomfortable because, as Fleming explained, the film’s plot involved a new agricultural machine that kills crop-pests by emitting low amounts of radiation: this has the unexpected side effect of bringing recently dead humans back to murderous life. I was living on a farm at the time and employing a machine that destroys crop-damaging bugs, but that accidentally unleashes a plague of killer zombies too, sounded like something my Dad would do. Fleming had a humorous writing style. He wryly described the film’s many disembowelments, dismemberments and eye-gougings that, to my eleven-year-old self, didn’t sound like laughing matters. He concluded with the memorable line: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film. But you certainly won’t sleep through it.”
I would furtively buy House of Hammer at my local newsagent’s and read it well away from the eyes of my parents. I doubted if the magazine would receive adult approval – rightly, as my experience at the school in Lincolnshire demonstrated years later. Hammer horror films nowadays are a cherished part of Britain’s film heritage. People rank them alongside the Gainsborough romances and Ealing comedies and wax nostalgically about how fairy tale-like and relatively un-bloody they were. But that certainly wasn’t how they were regarded in the past, even as late as the 1970s. Back then, they had a reputation for being crude, sleazy and violent. The really subtle and artful horror films, the establishment critics would tell you, were the monochrome ones made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s.
Another reason to keep shtum about reading House of Hammer was the magazine’s coverage of new – well, late-1970s – horror films. It didn’t flinch from showing graphic scenes from those films. (Though the pictures were at least in black and white. The only part of House of Hammer that was in colour was its cover). As well as the nail-file-in the-eye picture from Satan’s Slave, I remember grisly stills from the 1976 killer-worm film Squirm, including one where a bucketful of crazed worms start burrowing into someone’s face – these special effects were the work of a young make-up man called Rick Baker, who’d later win Oscars for his contributions to more reputable movies. I was also haunted by pictures from 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, in which actor Alex Rebar spends 84 minutes dissolving in a gloop of what looks like mouldy pizza topping. Its special effects were also masterminded by Rick Baker. Obviously, Rick was a busy lad in those days.
In fact, horror movies then were rapidly changing. The gothic costume-drama horrors of Hammer Films – who managed just one release during House of Hammer’s run, 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter – were on their way out, along with the traditional monsters that they’d featured, like vampires, werewolves and mummies. In their place appeared angrier, more brutal, contemporary-set horror films. Whether it was conscious of this or not, the magazine in its later issues devoted increasing space to younger and more nihilistic horror filmmakers like George Romero, Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.
Indeed, it was John Fleming in House of Hammer who introduced me to the work of a young Canadian director called David Cronenberg. He wrote a feature about Cronenberg’s first four movies, the mutation-obsessed, body-horror shockers Stereo (1969), Crimes of the Future (1970), Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Noting that Rabid, which was about blood-crazed zombies in Montreal who had hypodermic spikes oozing in and out of their orifices, was just a remake of Shivers, which was about sex-crazed zombies in Montreal who had slug-like parasites oozing in and out of their orifices, Fleming expressed concern that Cronenberg might be a one-trick pony who’d spend his career repeating himself. “In horror films,” wrote Fleming, “I prefer ad nauseum to mean something else.” Well, John, you obviously didn’t see A History of Violence (2005) coming. Or Eastern Promises (2007). Or A Dangerous Method (2011). Or…
House of Hammer folded after 23 issues. I suppose its demise was inevitable. By this point in the late 1970s the studio from which it’d taken its name was virtually dead in the water, as was the whole British film industry.
But over the past few years what’s been interesting, and gratifying, for me has been the realisation that I wasn’t the only kid in Britain who’d surreptitiously read the magazine. No, some heavy-hitters of the future had read it too. The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss made a documentary about British horror films for BBC4 a couple of years ago and it contained a scene where Gatiss sat down and pored over an old copy of House of Hammer. Meanwhile, comic actor and writer Mathew Holness (of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place fame) was clearly a fan too, as this item on his twitter feed indicates:
Perhaps most significantly, I’ve read an interview with British filmmaker Julian Richards, whose 1997 movie Darklands is credited with kick-starting the modern boom in British horror movie-making – which has spawned films such as 28 Days Later (2003) and Kill List (2011) and is still going today. In the interview Richards mentioned that his first attempt at movie-making, at the age of 13, involved filming a version of a Van Helsing’s Terror Tale from a House of Hammer issue.
At one point I’d managed to amass all 23 issues of House of Hammer, which today, in mint condition, would probably raise a fortune on eBay. Unfortunately, each issue had on its back cover the original poster for the Hammer film being told in comic-strip form inside it. And in my unthinking juvenile enthusiasm, I’d immediately grab a pair of scissors, cut off that poster / back cover and stick it on my bedroom wall. Oh well. I still think the Vampire Circus (1972) poster is a thing of beauty that should be on everyone’s bedroom wall.
(c) Hammer Films
By the time of House of Hammer’s demise, Skinn had launched a sister magazine, Starburst. This was inspired by the success of Star Wars (1977), dealt with science-fiction films and TV shows and used most of House of Hammer’s writing staff – including John Fleming, who’d get to interview heroes of mine such as Nigel Kneale, creator / writer of Quatermass, and Brian Clemens, key writer on The Avengers. After about twenty issues Starburst widened its remit to include fantasy and horror films as well and it’s continued to be published, on and off, ever since – the last time I checked, it’d clocked up over 400 issues.
In the 1980s, Skinn also launched the influential comic – the influential adult comic – Warrior, which gave the world its first taste of the classic Alan Moore-written, David Lloyd-illustrated dystopian saga V for Vendetta. At the risk of sounding uncultured, I have to say that what excited me when I read Warrior wasn’t so much V for Vendetta; but the fact that it contained more of the adventures of that demon-fighting Transylvanian / Scottish monk from Dracula Prince of Darkness, Father Shandor.
A while back, whilst Internet-surfing, I stumbled across a blog called So It Goes written by John Fleming, House of Hammer’s old Living Dead at Manchester Morgue reviewer and David Cronenberg expert. Fleming has been busy since then. Although he still does some journalism, he’s also been a producer of comedy shows and a consultant for theatres and entertainment companies; he organises the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards that are handed out every year at the Edinburgh Fringe; he sets up websites, usually for comedians; and he records podcasts with the Scottish comedy critic Kate Copstick. His blog is mainly about comedy and comedians too.
I wasn’t surprised that Fleming had turned out to be a comedy specialist. Back at the beginning of the 1980s, I’d watched Tiswas, the famous ITV Saturday-morning kid’s show that was a glorious mixture of jokes, slapstick, anarchy, stupidity, custard pies, buckets of water and vats of gunge and that helped to launch the careers of Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry; and I’d noticed the name ‘John Fleming’ among the show’s credits. I’d always wondered if this was the same John Fleming who’d written for House of Hammer and Starburst. (Answer: it was.)
I sent Fleming an email, in which I threw at him a couple of his old quotes from House of Hammer – God knows how I remembered them after nearly 40 years, but I did – and he responded with a request to interview me for his blog. He’d had a look at my biography on Blood and Porridge and must’ve decided that I sounded weird enough to make an interesting interview subject. So we did a half-hour interview via Skype. The piece that resulted from the interview can be read here.
I have to say that our half-hour chat was pretty rambling. It veered from my time in North Korea to my experiences as a writer; from the cinematic oeuvre of Mr Cronenberg to the town of Norwich, where I’d studied for my MA; from my current life in Sri Lanka to the question of why an eleven-year-old kid, as I was in 1977, would want to subject himself to a magazine like House of Hammer, dealing with films that were supposedly the stuff of nightmares. (Fleming had assumed that the magazine’s readership consisted of geeks in their late teens.) I was dubious that he’d be able to shape our all-over-the-place conversation into a coherent article, at least one where I didn’t sound like a babbling madman whose brain had been disconnected into a dozen different pieces.
But I think he’s managed to do a decent job of it. I only sound slightly babbling and mad and disconnected. Cheers, John!