The Love Witch, Anna Biller’s gloriously retro feminist horror, wears many of its influences on its sleeve – from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. One of its most overt stylistic influences, however, is Hammer Films, the British studio best known for its gothic horror pictures made in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
In an article on The Love Witch in Rolling Stone, the film is described as playing “like a valentine to Hammer horror movies”, and the director herself cites it as an influence in as separate article: “I love those movies, like the Doris Day comedies or the Hitchcock colour films and the Hammer horror films, and those are a little more gothic so they look more like The Love Witch.”
But what is so notable and influential about Hammer’s style in its gothic horror pictures, and why – after sixty years – are they still influencing modern films?
Hammer’s signature style was established in its first colour gothic The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The decision to shoot the film in colour – becoming the first British horror to do so – immediately sets it apart from other films at the time, as well as presenting a number of new possibilities for director Terence Fisher.
The film’s use of colour is at its most obvious in The Curse of Frankenstein’s laboratory set. Fisher frequently foregrounds the beakers and apparatus in his shots – filled with deep red liquids and bright green powders – with the actors further back in the frame.
In a horror film using colour for the first time, blood was inevitably going to be a factor. Shockingly bright and visceral, perhaps the most striking use of blood is in the scene where Frankenstein’s assistant Paul shoots the Creature in the face and the bright red blood sprays across his face. It was this depiction of blood in colour, used for the first time in a horror context, which was one of the primary factors that unnerved the British film censor.
Stylistic traits of a particular film do not necessarily reflect a company’s style. But it was the international success of The Curse of Frankenstein that saw Hammer double down on its colour gothic horrors.
To ensure similar successes, Hammer were keen to hire many of the same cast and crew from The Curse of Frankenstein. From lead actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, to director Terence Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher, Hammer were looking to establish a team that presented a consistent style across a body of films: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
A recurring cast and crew all working within the confines of the gothic horror genre ultimately led to a number of films including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) bearing similar traits – sumptuous and sometimes shocking use of colour, striking use of interiors (due to Hammer shooting all their early features at Bray Studios), and a quality ensemble of actors.
The Love Witch’s intoxicating use of colour, and its subversion of some of the horror tropes made famous by Hammer, make it a must-see for classic horror fans. Perhaps one day The Love Witch paired with one of these Hammer classics will make a scary good double bill.
The Love Witch screens at Phoenix Fri 10 – Sun 12 March