Let’s be clear about this: I’ve never been a stamp collector. I have nothing against those who do, even if there is a popular suspicion of people who can spend a fortune and a lifetime acquiring and studying tiny bits of gummed paper; I just always had other things to be a geek about. But this week I might just change my mind and get my hands on the Royal Mail‘s latest issue of philatelic (OK, I might be making words up here…) things. With the slightly spurious excuse of marking the anniversary of 1958 (the release of both Dracula and Carry On Sargeant), they’ve released six commemorative stamps celebrating the output of Hammer Film Productions and the Carry On… franchise.
There can hardly be a more striking indicator of something’s passage from cultural anathema to national treasure than its appearance on a stamp, those little paper markers that are safe enough to be seen by the postman or sent to Santa. These films were not always seen through such misty eyes, as Derek Hill’s 1958 Sight and Sound review of The Curse of Frankenstein reminds us:
Instead of attempting mood, tension or shock, the new Frankenstein productions rely almost entirely on a percentage of shots of repugnant clinical detail. There is little to frighten … but plenty to disgust.
C.A. Lejeune reckoned that the same film was ‘without hesitation… among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have encountered’, and she wasn’t alone in condemning the Hammer films as prurient, sensationalist grotesqueries. What is it that makes them seem so tame and comforting now? In his article “Hammer’s Cosy Violence”, from Sight and Sound‘s August 1996 edition, the novelist Jonathan Coe refers to “the sense of blanketing comfort which the very (over)familiarity of the regular Hammer ingredients now induces.” If horror is based on the unknown and unfamiliar, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the endless replaying of horrific events in the homely grounds and corridors of Bray Studios in Buckinghamshire would become reassuringly heimlich. Or maybe its because nothing involving Peter Cushing could be as noxiously cynical as the kinds of teen-obsessed, gash-n’-slash McTorture movies that currently preoccupy the centre-ground of the horror genre (hand me my slippers – over there, next to my cardigan).
It’s a bit more difficult to salvage Carry on Emanuelle from the bargain-bin purgatory in which it belongs, but Hammer’s finest moments can still inspire with a wickedly creative bit of blood-letting. Having said that, who wouldn’t want to adorn their next envelope with the image of Sid James dressed as the Sphinx? It’s just a good job you don’t have to lick their backs anymore. I must say, though, that the sight of the Queen’s head looking on impassively in the midst of these scenes is mildly disconcerting…