Sense of Wonder: Hammer Horror Remakes on the Way?

Hammer Film Production
Last week, posted an interview with Simon Oakes, head of the recently resurrected Hammer Films, who suggested that three of the company’s old properties are under consideration for being revamped: THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT; CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER; and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. Or, more precisely, Oakes stated that there was no intention of remaking anything, simply of “reimagining” the characters for the 21st century.
The horror genre has been litered with remakes lately – some bad, some good – but the good ones are not enough to stop you from pulling out your hair in frustration wondering why filmmakers seem so averse to to originalty. So the question is whether remaking old Hammer films (or, ahem, “reimagining” them) is a good idea at all.
Before dismissing the idea in a knee-jerk fashion, it is worth noting is that the Hammer horror legacy is largely based on remakes, starting with 1957’s retooling of Mary Shelly, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the film that broke with the classic horror tradition of atmospheric black-and-white photography in favor of full-blooded (literally) Technicolor. The success of that film led to HORROR OF DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, and many subsequent sequels and spin-offs – all within a few short years.
What is interesting about the Hammer horror output is that, apart from THE MUMMY, few if any of their films are literal remakes of the Universal horror classics of the 1930s. Long before the term was coined, Hammer literally did “re-imagine” familiar monsters, crafting what were essentially original scenarios loosely inspired by the source material (novels by Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gaston Leroux, and Robert Louise Stevenson), rather than by previous film adaptations. Perhaps the best example of this approach is their 1961 nod to the lycanthropy sub-genre, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, which has nothing to do with Universal’s 1941 THE WOLF MAN, being instead an adaptation of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris.
Back in the 1990s, there was talk of several Hammer titles being remade, (including THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, which was to have been directed by Joe Dante, with Christopher Lee reprising his role as the Duc de Richleau – except of course the intervening decades would have removed the necessity of makeup to make Lee look old enough for the part). The idea of literal remakes struck me as a bad idea. Much of what gave Hammer horror its own unique flavor was the production design and performances, orchestrated by a stable of talented in-house directors. No disrespect to the screenwriters, who were equally clever, but most of the old scripts do not cry out to be remade with new actors and new millennium special effects. As Oakes says in the BD interview: They were “of their time.”
A far better way to capture the spirit of Hammer horror would be to use the old Hammer strategy: take the bare bones of yester-year’s monster and rebuild it with fresh flesh, blood, and brains, stitching together a creation that is new yet recognizable. It’s been nearly 20 years since the botched BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and MARY SHELLY’S FRANKENSTEIN, so why not go back and do them right this time? Better yet, as good as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is, it uses only pieces of Endore’s story; there is plenty of room to go back and craft a more faithful adaptation.
With this in mind, it would be unfair to chide Oakes for ransacking the Hammer vaults for old ideas to resurrect for modern audiences. The term “reimagining” has become a tired euphemism for “remaking,” and Oakes use of it here is likely to ring a skeptical alarm bell. After all, it’s not as if Hammer Films is dead set against doing literal remakes: they have LET ME IN, an English-language version of the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, set for release in October; and a remake of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (a 1989 telefilm scripted by Nigel Neale) is in the works. Still, if Oakes makes good on his word, it’s not hard to imagine something special being created in the old mad scientist’s lab.
Of the properties that Oakes mentions, QUATERMASS and CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER seem to have the most potential, because they are character-based; if you have an compelling protagonist (be it Superman or James Bond), you can always fashion a new story to show off the characteristics that make him interesting.
The Professor Quatermass character appeared in three Hammer films, all based on BBC mini-series scripted by Nigel Neale. More science fiction than horror, Kneale’s storyline’s mixed fascinating concepts with exciting action, with Quatermass as the brilliant scientist who unraveled the situation (often involving alien intervention on Earth). With Neale now departed, the difficulty here would be coming up with a writer capable of writing a script worthy of the character.

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974)
Horst Janson as Captain Kronos

CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER (known simply as KRONOS in its native England) has a bit less prestige than the QUATERMAS films. Written and directed by Brian Clemens (creator of THE AVENGERS television show), the 1974 film was a laudable, though not entirely successful, attempt to move the horror genre in a new directon, focusing on the hero instead of the monster, and spicing up the usual vampire elelements with some swashbuckling adventure.
Part of the problem seems to have been that budgetary restraints prevented Clemens from fully realizing his conception on screen. Interestingly, Oakes’s description of the character mention elements that are not part of the original film, suggesting that a new version will be more than a slavish remake:

The great thing about him, of course, is that he’s a vampire, but not a vampire. He has all the traits of a vampire, he never ages […] there are many things you can do with that.

I’m not sure whether Clemens intended Kronos to be part vampire, but in an interview contemporaneous with the film’s release, he mentioned that he wanted Kronos to sleep in a golden coffin, suggesting that he had some vampire-like attributes. To me, this is ideal fodder for a remake: a good idea that could be done better the second time around. The only potential pitfall is that the once-original idea of an action-hero vampire hunter is a vein that has since been tapped out by the likes of VAMPIRE HUNTER D and BLADE, not to mention BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
As for DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, I have little hope. The concept is basically a gimmick to infuse a semblance of life into an old idea, and the original film’s strength lies less in the script (a mish-mash that tosses in everything from Jack the Ripper to Burke and Hare) than in the titular performances by Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke. There may be a way to reimagine this one, but I rather doubt it, espeically after 1995’s lifeless spoof DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE.
Whether any of these projects will see the light of day remains to be seen, and it’s hard to say, based on the Oakes comments, whether they are likely to live up to their potential. The BD interview reads like an underwritten transcript of a conversation with someone who is only in the very early, hazy stage of developing an idea, suggesting that he plans on…

[d]oing a new Quatermass movie, doing a new Kronosmovie. You know, not remaking the same film…but saying, “what would the Kronos movie of 2011 look like, or Quatermass of 2012?”

What indeed? The horror genre’s recent success ratio at remaking old properities does not engender much optimism, but I am curious to find out what a new-millennium Quatermass or Kronos would be.

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