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A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films [Hardcover]

Sinclair McKay
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

25 May 2007
When the relatively unknown Hammer Films released "The Curse of Frankenstein" in 1957 it unexpectedly struck gold. The reactions of a lynch mob of critics brought the audiences flooding into the cinemas and the film ultimately recovered its modest production budget thirty times over and launched an international 'brand' that would become a part of the British way of life. Originally formed in 1934 and previously known for quickie melodramas, police thrillers and monochrome sci-fi features, Hammer was quick to capitalise on the film's success. By 1979, when the studio ceased production, Hammer's trademark combination of gore and decolletage had in dozens of "Frankenstein", "Dracula" and vampire movies that would continue to be a staple of late-night television for years to come. Hammer was a very British success story. A family business, it operated from the improbable setting of a Berkshire country house, employed largely British casts and catered to the long-established British taste for grand guignol that teetered on the edge of self-parody. But its production values were high by the standards of the time and the genre and in addition to establishing the careers of its regular stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee it gave a surprisingly large number of British actors and directors their first break and film-makers including Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino have all acknowledges its influence on their work. The author has interviewed many of the surviving actors and other employees most of whom recollect their times at Hammer with amusement and affection.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Aurum Press Ltd (25 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845132491
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845132491
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.4 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 186,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sinclair McKay is a features writer for The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He is also the acclaimed author of the bestselling 'The Secret Life of Bletchley Park'.

Product Description


* 'Brisk, cheerful and enthusiastic' Independent on Sunday * 'A splendid history, stuffed with historical details and fake-gory anecdotes' Guardian --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Sinclair McKay, formerly a Features Editor on the Daily Telegraph, has been a Hammer fan ever since he used to watch BBC2's regular Saturday evening double horror feature as a youngster in the 1970s.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Thing of Unforgivable Error... 21 Jun 2008
A concise, affectionate potted history of the rise and fall of Hammer Films, Sinclair McKay's A Thing of Unspeakable Horror is a breezy enough read for those seeking an introduction to the famous company and the movies they produced; however, it will certainly prove frustrating for those who would already class themselves as seasoned Hammer fans. The writer is obviously quite familiar with Hammer horror movies, and seems to genuinely love them; unfortunately, when discussing the films, his tone is far too jokey (and the fact that he names the trashy camp-fest Dracula AD 1972 as his favourite Hammer film really says it all).
His first chapter is dedicated to listing the various `common conventions' (or clichés) that he seems to think are required of any Hammer horror; in this he also reveals the limits of his `expertise', as this kind of generalisation is the sort of thing that is both despised, and easily disproved by those with more in-depth knowledge of the subject (for instance, the inn landlords of Hammer's Dracula films were variously played by George Woodbridge, Norman Pierce, Woodbridge again, George A. Cooper, and lastly Michael Ripper; McKay blithely states that Ripper always played the part). In fact, less-than-careful proof reading seems to have led to the inclusion of several factual mistakes, and not just concerning the topic at hand; when discussing 1958's seminal Horror of Dracula, the basic plot of which every true Hammer fan will be very familiar with, McKay gets the roles (and fates) of the Lucy and Mina characters mixed up; he states that Oliver Reed made his screen debut in The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961 (Reed actually debuted in the Norman Wisdom comedy The Square Peg in 1958, and made his debut for Hammer in The Two Faces of Dr.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extended Essay 7 Jun 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As the earlier review of this book suggests, this is not a something that you should read if you want accurate information about the history and output of one of the world's most famous horror film studios. McKay drops factual clangers in almost every chapter. These are not merely in regard to Hammer, but to all films ( Riddle of the Sands starred Michael York, not Simon Ward!) At times this does look like an extended magazine article rather than a hardback, and he really should have done some proper research rather than rely on his memory.

That said, I really DID like this book! McKay has a genuine enthusiasm for these films and a breezy style which draws you along effortlessly. He is also, at times, very funny. The rather unhorrifying monster from the film THE GORGON is described as looking like ' a furious boarding house landlady interrupted in the course of setting her hair'. And I found myself chuckling at the suggestion that the rather pathetic sets in SCARS OF DRACULA lead one to suspect that the Count has now taken up residence in a branch of the Angus Steak House.

There is some attempt to place the films in the context of the times that they were made, and chapters dealing with the studio's treatment of feminism and class based politics. Refreshingly, the author draws back from suggesting that these films are coded Marxist texts, and points out that they are really timeless fairy tales. He even mentions that they were giving far more substantial roles to women as the years went on (albeit ones that required them to wear, flimsy low-cut nighties!)

All in all, I would recommend this book to you. It's a good, enjoyable read, and manages to avoid being either too reverential or too patronising. If you already know a lot about Hammer, you can have extra fun picking up on all the mistakes. If you DON'T already know a lot about Hammer, then it might be a good idea to order this with one of the more factually reliable Hammer books mentioned.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tries too hard be clever. 20 Dec 2009
After turning the last page of this work, I began wondering to what exactly the title, A Thing of Unspeakable Horror, refers to? The Hammer films, or the book itself? Though an ostensive history of the Hammer horror output, the author adopts the same pithy observational approach he took in his rather tiresome coverage of the James Bond films, The Man With The Golden Touch. And, as with that volume, this is a book that is more about the author than its stated subject.

The trouble with taking a humorous, pithy approach to a subject matter is that it only really works if your reader is in tune with it. I found myself fading in and out with Mr. McKay's perspective. Some of his remarks are quite funny, others are an excruciating read. But all in all, you are left thinking that while this guy loves Hammer films, does he actually like them? McKay cannot resist having a dig at the films he covers, and one cannot help feeling this is an ego boosting exercise to attempting to look cool. For example, when talking about Scars of Dracula - a flawed but fine entry in the series and far better than often given credit for - he reports that star Dennis Waterman refused to be interviewed for the book about it, adding "if I had starred in such a stinker, I'd be reluctant to discuss it too."... Boom, boom. He also dismisses the re designed Castle Dracula set as resembling an Angus Steak House. Well, all I can say is Mr. McKay has evidently dined in some very peculiar branches of that chain, if he is to be believed.

The other problem with being pithy is that the author can be so self indulgent as to fall into the trap of sacrificing accurate research for clever remarks.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Hammertastic
This is an enormously entertaining read. However, do not expect to be enlightened about any infernal, nefarious or unspeakable things that went on at Bray Studios during British... Read more
Published on 28 Nov 2011 by Paul Holmes
4.0 out of 5 stars A Thing Of Unspeakable Horror, Sinclair McKay - Horribly good...
In the late fifites a relatively unknown British studio redefined the Horror genre with a series of gory gothic creature features, all in glorious Technicolor. Read more
Published on 28 Sep 2009 by Victor
4.0 out of 5 stars Affectionate and readable tribute
I really enjoyed this book. Hammer films were part of my childhood, and I have fond memories of watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, two great Hammer stars, as Dracula, the... Read more
Published on 6 Sep 2009 by Guerrilla_Urbane
1.0 out of 5 stars Just awful
Sorry, but this is just dreadful. I don't see the point in reading a book that is so factually wrong, there is no excuse and it really is pointless. Read more
Published on 15 May 2008 by Mr. Derek Pike
3.0 out of 5 stars Now if MTV were doing a Hammer special!
....This would be the book they'd be guaranteed to use!!!

In all fairness, there's nothing I can really say here but echo my fellow reviewers, though this book is... Read more
Published on 19 Oct 2007 by Peter Devaney
5.0 out of 5 stars Hammer heritage
This book by Sinclair McKay has a very good review of the Hammer films. His account of the history of the Carrera's clan and how Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee became world-wide... Read more
Published on 18 July 2007 by Bram Stoker
5.0 out of 5 stars some mistkake, surely?
yes there are one or two blunders, which is a shame, but this book is a hoot from start to finish, full of witty asides and more intriguing wider points about the world in which... Read more
Published on 9 Jun 2007 by henry Laszlo
2.0 out of 5 stars Enthusiastic but fundamentally wrong...
McKay's obvious enthusiasm for the subject of Hammer should be welcomed, but the book does not deliver on its initial promises, and Hammer fans would be well advised to steer... Read more
Published on 4 Jun 2007 by R. J. E. Simpson
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