All horror movies are about sex and death, though not necessarily in that order. And naturally, sex and death are two subjects the British have traditionally found too embarrassing to tackle head-on, preferring to bury them beneath a jumble of euphemism and jocularity. Which is probably why they form such a powerful motif in the output of that most British of companies – Hammer Film Productions, which from the late 1950s to the early 1970s eked out its meagre budgets into a beguiling series of lush, dark fairytales in which British audiences could vicariously let it all hang out in a titillating riot of blood and debauchery.
Not for Hammer the uninhibited sensuality of Euro-horror or the more outré offshoots of American exploitation. Like the stereotypical British personality, British attitudes to sex and horror are bottled up, with results that are all the more tantalising when evil is finally uncorked and the precious bodily fluids start to flow, nay, gush. Lack of inhibition is all fine and dandy, but there’s nothing like a soupçon of repression to add spice to the yield.
In The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, Hammer’s version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, for example, the dull doctor’s potions transform him not into the usual hulking brute, but into his evil alter-ego – a charming, handsome and utterly amoral bounder whose favourite stomping ground is the Sphinx nightclub full of cancan dancers, showing more white knicker than an upskirt snapper’s photo album. There’s also an exotic dancer who does surprisingly lewd things with her snake.
In Hammer’s horror films, sex is invariably seen as unBritish, something to be forced back into its box – though not before the audience has had an eyeful of the naughtiness. Sexy things happen when filthy foreign habits or the untrammelled appetites of a decadent aristocracy intrude upon cosy but dull Home Counties domesticity, thinly disguised as the generic faux-Bavarian settings cobbled together in Hammer’s customised country house studio and its grounds.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hammer’s vampire movies, in which virtuous women are transformed by the bite of undead suitors into sex-crazed nymphos whose sole aim is to infect their loved ones, maybe tucking into the occasional kiddy as an hors d’oeuvre. There are two sorts of penetration in Hammer – the piercing of soft flesh by a vampire’s fangs, and the stake driven into the heart. In both cases, there is discharge, though it happens to be red rather than semen-coloured. Men do get bitten and staked, but the films reserve their most lascivious subjugations for the female victim.
Christopher Lee in Dracula is not just the archetypal tall, dark and handsome stranger; he is also virile, foreign and a little bit rapey, and thus a triple threat to the film’s principal menage. Lucy, the first to go, is violated twice: once by Dracula himself, whose nocturnal visits to her bedroom she awaits with quivering excitement, and then again, post-mortem, by Van Helsing, who impales her in her coffin, making her thrash around in agony as scarlet blood wells up around his weapon, after which her voracious vampire features soften into peaceful repose. Look! It was for her own good! This is just typical of Hammer’s heroic sages. And it’s not just a game between men, in which women are decorative but disposable pawns, but a battle reserved for toffs: peasants and innkeepers’ daughters intrude every once in a while, but only as fodder for the depraved nobility.
After Lucy, it’s her sister-in-law Mina’s turn to serve as repository for the ultimate love bite. While the men are outside the house, forming a protective perimeter around their one surviving female (the maid doesn’t count, of course), Dracula has already infiltrated their cordon and is directing his deep, dark, hypnotic gaze at Mina (Melissa Stribling). All he has to do is stand there, a phallic column in his fancy formalwear and cloak, and she submits, making no effort at all to resist or run away. Her expression is torn between dread and desire, lips slightly parted, as though gearing up for the sort of orgasm her husband could never hope to give her; it’s the ultimate rape fantasy, a paroxysm of masochistic pleasure in which la petite mort tips over into big sleep territory.
Dracula nuzzles her head playfully, cups her face with his elegant hands, and feints, as though to kiss her on the lips, before letting slip a little smile of triumph and peeling back his own lips to expose the fangs with which he pierces the trembling flesh of her lovely throat. Fear not for Mina, though. Lucy had dark hair, but Mina is blonde. In Hammer Horrorworld, the struggle between good and evil, the forces of light and darkness, is literally played out via hair colour. Spunky brunettes and feisty redheads are doomed to be used and abused, drained and discarded, whereas the wan blonde is always rescued.
But the principal unit by which Hammer eroticism must be measured is the bosom. Where there’s a wench, there’s an embonpoint, laid bare in a cunning blend of pumped-up Regency-style décolletage and load-bearing uplift atop a full Victorian skirt. Pre-bite, the women are literally buttoned up and prim, faithful wife material. Post-bite, they’re all cantilevered cleavage in floaty ectoplasmic gowns, and ready to get their rocks off with anyone.
Take Dracula Prince of Darkness, in which puritanical Helen (Barbara Shelley) is transformed by the vampire’s bite into a hissing redheaded vixen in a low-cut dress. She is pinned down on a table by a bunch of monks, as pious as middle-aged male Republicans pronouncing on women’s health issues from the White House, and writhes helplessly as a stake is hammered between her breasts. It’s as explicit an image of gang-rape as has ever been committed to film, but once again, it’s for her own good, because look! The feisty femme fatale has been tamed after providing audiences with the obligatory feast of cleavage, and now she’s back to her old self. OK, she’s also dead, but at least her virtue has been restored!
In Hammer’s early horror films the breasts were suggestive rather than explicit, but as British censorship relaxed in the 1960s and early 1970s, they grew incrementally more abundant and palpable, eventually erupting from their bustiers altogether as the studio called on the voluptuous talents of a bevy of bosomy starlets: Veronica Carlson in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and a couple of Frankensteins, Yutte Stensgaard in Lust for a Vampire and, most spectacularly, Valerie Leon, whose double role in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb as a reincarnated Egyptian princess means she gets to wear bejewelled breast ornaments that barely cover her nipples.
The Vampire Lovers (1970) goes the whole hog, not just making it girl-on-girl but adding seduction by fashion tip. ‘You must take everything off,’ sophisticated Carmilla says to her hosts’ unworldly daughter Emma during a girly frock exchange. ‘You can’t put it over a bodice – it ruins the shape.’ Only a few scenes later, and Carmilla is sinking her fangs not into Emma’s neck, but into her bosom – the ne plus ultra of Hammerific eroticism.
This article was first published in The Amorist in 2017. It has since been slightly edited.
The screengrab from The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll is from the Snakes in Movies website.
ADDENDUM: The Secret World of the Sex Witches, an erotic novella by “Musidora”, first published in The Erotic Review (precursor to The Amorist), is now available in paperback from all the amazons. Please click on the pic to be taken to amazon uk.