7. Quatermass and the Pit (Hammer, 1967)
Along with The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II, Five Million Years to Earth, as it was known in the U.S., complete Hammers great sci-fi trilogy that would later be turned into a mini-series for BBC. The final entry in the series is known best for its far superior special effects and farther reaching plot than its predecessors.
Directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker and written by original author Nigel Kneale, Quatermass and the Pit is the most believable, in terms of acting, story, set design, and characters, of any of the Sci-fi films Hammer would produce.
Lead Andrew Keir is particularly convincing as Dr. Bernard Quatermass and delivers a lot of humanity to mix in with his scientific observations.
While it has been expanded and remade twice since its initial release, the original Quatermass and the Pit more than stands the test of time, it is a showcase of why Hammer wasn’t just a one trick pony in horror. The studio was very capable of suspense and riveting sci-fi as well.
6. The City of the Dead (Amicus, 1960)
The film that led to the formal creation of Amicus in 1960, The City of the Dead was co-written and produced by Milton J. Subotsky and Max Rosenberg who for two solid decades would have their hands in molding the studio and it’s films, inspired by British studio Ealing, into a horror powerhouse that would rival Hammer in its popularity. Although the output was much smaller, the quality of films was right alongside it and City of the Dead is a great example of that quality.
With a small cast of mostly small name actors, with the exception of Christopher Lee, The City of the Dead gets its point across with little action and even few sets. Taking place in a small town that is really a coven seeking immortality for them and their 17th century witch leader, the film is shot in stark black and white with little to no big scares and instead survives on atmosphere and what the viewer thinks they see.
While not as goofy or over the top as some of their later horror films, City of the Dead announced “The Studio That Dripped Blood” as a fitting rival for its greater known counterpart.
5. The Devil Rides Out (Hammer, 1968)
A departure in both tone and form for Hammer studios, The Devil Rides Out is set in contemporary London and centers around a group of friends who are beset by the leader of a cult played by Charles Gray (later famous for his narration of Rocky Horror Picture Show) and his Satan worshipping followers. Christopher Lee gets to play the rare good guy role as Duc de Richleau who has had dealings with the cult and may be the only way to stop them and save his friends.
Directed by Terrence Fisher with a script written by master horror author Richard Matheson from the novel by Dennis Wheatley, the film moves away from the mass amount of Dracula and Frankenstein horror films to bring a special effect laden thriller with great characters that are wonderfully acted and set pieces that build up the tension while never letting the audience completely in on what they are seeing.
Hammer would attempt to make another Wheatley adaptation with To the Devil…A Daughter in 1976 that also features Lee, although as the films central villain this time around, but it would end up being the second to last film produced by a company that was seemingly on its last leg.
4. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965)
After 1960s The City of the Dead brought Amicus Studios the fame and recognition it was looking for the next two films were comedies to appease the financial backers in the hopes that they would have more freedom with higher budgets.
In 1965 they were able to make Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which was based on a love of the British suspense film Dead of Night involving multiple short stories connected with a major plot point, and start a trend of satisfying anthology tales where they could film brief vignettes and thread them together with an over-arching storyline.
The main story involves 5 train passengers who end up in the same car and are joined by a mysterious old fortune teller. The fortune teller, played with sly charisma and whit with a hint of scary by Peter Cushing, begins to read each man’s fortune one at a time. When each man continues to end up dead in at the end of their story, the passengers begin to suspect something is terribly off.
With a great cast of both young (Donald Sutherland and Roy Castle) and established (Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing) talent and a veteran director in Freddie Francis, the film uses the strengths of all involved to weave together a frightful affair that has no real dull stories and boasts fairly advanced special effects for the time. It would be followed by 6 additional anthology films but the first one still retains all of the charm it had when it was first shown.
3. Horror of Dracula (Hammer, 1958)
Following directly on the heels of the smash success Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer released their first take on the vampire legend with Horror of Dracula. It again stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee but instead of Cushing being the monstrous Dr. Frankenstein, he is the heroic Van Helsing. Lee is given much more to do with his character as Dracula rather than the mute creation in Curse.
He brings a chilling ferocity to the role that Legosi, and other actors to play the role, had never brought. A tall actor, Lee was just physically imposing next to the actresses opposite him and even looked to tower over his foil Cushing. The story follows the same characters from the stoker novel but does not follow the format or pacing.
More than just a remake or a reboot of the universal series from 30 years prior, Horror launched an entire series that would see Lee play the count 7 times and Cushing play Van Helsing 4. It would serve as a re-establishing or series tropes and give a new generation their own definitive versions of these characters. For many Lee and Cushing would become the last word in mortal enemies Dracula and Van Helsing.
2. Tales From the Crypt (Amicus, 1972)
With the best collection of stories as well as great performances in each one, including the tie in story that begins and ends the film, Tales From the Crypt is the best anthology film that Amicus put together. Directed by two-time Oscar winner Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, Ralph Richardson, and Patrick Magee, Tales never lets its stories run for too long nor does it skip on the tension and scares.
The 3 best stories, involving a deranged Santa Claus impersonator, a poor blind man driven to angst because he isn’t beautiful enough for the community, and a group of poorly treated blind men seeking revenge on their ex-military overseer, all follow their source material to a T. Tales From the Crypt is taken directly from the pages of the old E.C. Comics of the same name and nail the look and feel of their source with very few of the characters getting away with their bad deeds.
While far from the first anthology film, Amicus gets it almost perfect with Tales and the film has yet to be surpassed and rarely equaled by anthology films since.
1. Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1957)
The title that would launch the studios newfound niche in the horror genre as well as establish the new career paths of its stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Curse of Frankenstein is the beginning of decade’s long excellence in horror for Hammer studios. By focusing more on the good doctor being the main villain for the film, Hammer is able to give a less sympathetic “monster” for viewers to root against.
The monster in the Universal films is more of a gentle creature that is a byproduct of science gone bad by a doctor trying to change the world. In Hammers iteration, the doctor is a sociopath who is willing to kill to not only keep his secret but to advance his experiments as far as he can. The creature, played by Christopher Lee, is much more horrific looking than Karloff and doesn’t seem as gentle or childlike personality. Instead he is much more like a dog being trained and completely dehumanized.
The final addition brought on by Hammer with this smash hit was the full Technicolor gore that would eventually be a staple of their films. This would make their films difficult to give a rating to and even get them banned in multiple countries. Bloody human brains being put into jars, limbs being cut, and gore shooting out of eyes after being shot were all shocking and new to 1950s audiences.
This was also the beginning of films, especially in the U.S. and U.K markets, adding more and more blood into films to get a bigger draw. Curse of Frankenstein would go on to star Cushing in a series following the doctor in his attempts to make the perfect man, and in one case woman, at any cost. These portrayals of madness and pride would go a long way in cementing his portrayal as the definitive Frankenstein for many generations.
Author Bio: Andrew is a father of two boys, Sam and Noah and have loved film his whole life. His taste, and collection, grew from working at blockbuster for 8 years. He has a BA in history from long beach state.