Ah, Hammer Film Productions. Any truly devoted horror fan thinks of those beautifully lavish studio sets and smiles. Alright, very few of you readers remember the sets quite so well as the buxom beauties that pranced across them, in glorious Technicolor no less. To say films don’t make ‘em like they used to doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Nowadays, Hollywood only lets actresses pass go if they’re so bland and interchangeable that audiences can’t keep them straight. And while many of you have ogled the Hammer ladies for so long, it’s easy to forget that most of them could actually act, something which the generic teens and twentysomethings these days cannot claim.
So in an effort to revitalize—or at least be reminded of—the good old days, let’s look at a few of the great women, brought to us by Hammer. And before anybody calls sexism, I’ll be doing a Top Ten Men of Hammer Films in the coming weeks. Got to keep things equal opportunity.
Clocking only two Hammer films, Munro made quite the impression. As a teenage victim readymade to be picked off by Christopher Lee in Dracula AD 1972, she appeared only briefly. Instead, her role as plucky gypsy Carla in the inimitable Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is the one that earns her a rightful place on this list. Raven-haired with a flawless olive complexion, she blends the exotic with the gothic, all the while leaving modern audiences wishing that our actresses could be more than just the same old bleach-teethed, Laguna Beach/Real Housewives wannabes.
Like any good English girl of the sixties and seventies, Munro segued her Hammer residency into Bond Girl fame in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. But it was her turns in a pair of Hammer films that remain seared into the memory of horror fans everywhere.
The Hammer Glamour cover girl, Smith singlehandedly proves that you better never discount the ginger.
In her three efforts with Hammer—Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, and her personal favorite, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell—she was always cast in supporting roles rather than leads, and that trend continued even after she pursued opportunities in non-genre projects.
Like Munro, Smith also took a turn as a Bond Girl, playing the near-cameo role of Miss Caruso in Live and Let Die. After numerous stage and television appearances, the actress mostly retired from film in the late eighties, having made few appearances since. In retrospect, Smith being cast in only smaller roles is rather a loss for horror, especially since she showed so much promise to be so much more than just another disposable beauty.
One of the less instantly recognizable names on the list, Stribling appeared in only a single Hammer film, but that one turned out to be perhaps their most revered of all: 1958’s Horror of Dracula. As Mina, Stribling starts out as the usual uptight English gentlewoman, but after a meeting with the titular bloodsucker, she’s got a flush anew, which immediately tips off all the men in her life that supernatural hijinks must be afoot. Because, they reason, no way she’s looking that sublimely satisfied without the help of something evil.
While Lee and Cushing battle it out in the foreground, candlesticks and all, Stribling simmers in the background, her smirk belying a gleeful sexual energy brimming just below the surface. Sure, she gets restored to her husband played by Michael Gough—who, to many people in my age bracket, will always be a preboot Alfred—but the audience is left to wonder if she went a little more than willingly into the arms of the debonair Count. All signs of nineteenth-century repression point to yes.
No list like this is complete without a few zingers. Many of you may be saying, “Mandy Who?”, and unfortunately, her only Hammer foray is about as equally unknown. The Snorkel is an oft-forgotten classic that inspired many-an evil stepparent film to come. At just fourteen upon the film’s release, Miller played Candy, a young girl who recently lost her mother. The authorities say it was suicide, but she knows better. Faced with her villainous stepfather, the pint-sized heroine prepares to save the day, though the arduous path is paved with treachery and the death of her beloved dog.
While she retired from film at the ripe ol’ age of eighteen, Miller made a handful of film appearances, but nothing quite so close to horror aficionado’s hearts as her sole venture into Hammer territory. And though I won’t spoil the ending in hopes that a few readers will actually seek the film out, The Snorkel’s penultimate scene features a moment with Miller that, despite her charm and goodwill heretofore, manages to chill you to your core. Even a tacked on “happy ending” can’t assuage that stone cold countenance.
From the actress on the list who was youngest during her Hammer term, we segue to Bankhead, the oldest of the ten ladies featured. At sixty-three, she played the loony old lady villainess in Fanatic—known to American audiences by the arguably superior (and more Misfits appropriate) title of Die! Die! My Darling! In no way an obvious choice for the list, Bankhead didn’t need to star in a Hammer picture to cement her legacy on celluloid. She’d already portrayed the lead in a Hitchcock movie and amassed a slew of Broadway credits.
But honestly, Bankhead’s off-screen life probably makes her more unforgettable anyhow. She smoked, she drank, she loved her sleeping pills. Not always becoming qualities, but this was one woman who even in the staid world of mid twentieth-century America didn’t care what anyone thought of her. Her affairs are legendary and include a roster of men and women alike with no regards to the social, political, or racial “norms” set by the times. In today’s tabloid climate where every celebrity cares less about iconoclasm and more about what TMZ might write, Bankhead is perhaps the most refreshing blast from the past you’ll find, on this list or elsewhere.
After decades filled with one-hundred-plus cigarettes a day, Bankhead wasn’t quite at her peak when she paid a visit to Hammer, so let’s revel in her 1930s visage. Because even the naysayers who’ll dispute her place on this list can’t deny that face.
Unlike Munro and Smith, Andress was already a Bond girl—the original one as it happens—before she made the requisite trip to Hammer Studios. In fact, after her turn as the conch shell-loving Honey Ryder in Dr. No, Andress had to be all but dragged kicking and screaming to the set of She, her only effort with Hammer. Because she was under contract, she had no choice but to make the film, though she voiced her objections throughout.
Dubious as her starring role proved to be, She was a rousing success, even spawning a sequel, The Vengeance of She, though it earned not so much as a cameo from Andress. In some ways, her disdain for She should exclude her from the list. Furthermore, similar to our next lady, Raquel Welch, Andress never appeared in one of Hammer’s signature horror films. However, even a quick look at a publicity still from her single movie with the studio demonstrates Andress’s ethereal screen presence in a way that few actresses, even the classically trained ones, can manage today.
The bikini that launched a thousand posters. Or more like a million.
One Million Years B.C. is no horror movie, though an Allosaurus and a Pteranodon decimating whole anachronistic cave societies has its frightening aspects. But any list devoted to women of Hammer would be remiss to exclude the eternally lovely Welch. To mainstream audiences, she’s probably the most recognizable actress from the Studios’ oeuvre. To Hammer, she proved the most lucrative investment producers ever made.
As the mostly mute cavegirl, Welch didn’t convey much in the way of acting prowess in One Million Years B.C. and she never did another film for the famed movie studio. Consequently, like Andress before her, Welch eventually tried to distance herself from the film. That’s quite a shame in retrospect because, really, who wouldn’t want to play second fiddle to Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs?
Ever notice just how spectacular red hair shows up in Technicolor? That’s no casting accident. Another indelible ginger giving another indelible performance, Court played Elizabeth, the intended wife of the eponymous mad doctor in The Curse of Frankenstein. Though far from Hammer’s debut effort, the film established the studio as a new brand of horror, distinct from Universal’s monsters that had so long dominated the genre. The actress appeared in one more Hammer film, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, but by then, she was already disillusioned with the moviemaking racket, and within a few years had mostly retired from acting.
Before vacating the profession altogether, Court also appeared in a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone, the last to be written by creator Rod Serling, and if not for the enormously chintzy blow-up monster (really—it’s actually inflatable), “The Fear” would be an excellent study in how humans psychologically cope with terror. Wonder if she used some of her experience on Hammer sets for inspiration. Christopher Lee’s got to be cranky before coffee.
With a staggering eight films, Shelley accumulated the most impressive Hammer resume of any actress on the list. She practically took up official residence at Bray Studios in the fifties and sixties, and Hammer was lucky to have the versatile actress. Her tragic role in 1964’s The Gorgon and as a Victorian-turned-bloodsucker in 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness are among the works that fans remember her for best. Unlike some of the women on this list, Shelley never expressed shame or felt embarrassed by her involvement with Hammer, though she did ultimately try to explore non-genre work later in her career.
As a horror-related side note, Shelley also earns bonus points for her extracurricular films outside of Hammer, namely the 1960 alien-rape classic, Village of the Damned. Mod moppets never looked so scary.
The grand dame of Bray and Elstree Studios, Pitt is almost as synonymous with Hammer as a certain two actors who we’ll call Saruman the White and Grand Moff Tarkin.
These days, celebrities are called ‘survivors’ if they get through rehab without bolting. But Pitt earned the moniker by persevering through the most horrific circumstances of the twentieth century: Nazi concentration camps. Even after World War II ended, she found herself in East Berlin and decided that setting wasn’t for her, so she jumped in the river, swam to West Berlin, and married the U.S. soldier that pulled her out of the water. Seriously, why hasn’t a biopic been made about Ingrid Pitt yet?
Throughout an illustrious career that spanned five decades, Pitt did it all. She had roles in epic films (Dr. Zhivago and Where Eagles Dare), made numerous television appearances, and even became an author and screenwriter. But when she passed away in 2010 at age seventy-three, many of the obituaries included Hammer in the headline, proving just how inextricably linked the two factions were. A bittersweet end to a hard-fought (and well won) life.
Who’s your favorite Hammer actress? Let me know in the comments below!