by Peter Benassi
A whole horde of horror film magazines have come and gone over the years but few manage to achieve the iconic stamp of approval from discerning genre aficionados. We all have our favourite(s), but, rather like our ideal Doctor Who, it largely depends on the era in which you grew up. My chosen cherished publication is and always will be House of Hammer magazine. My discovery of this genre gem of a periodical was a monumental moment of my young Life and indeed a hugely influential event in my childhood development in terms of hobbies/collecting. I know I am not alone.
Initially conceived by comic maestro editor Dez Skinn as Chiller, it didn’t take long for him to realize he was missing a trick by not incorporating the word Hammer in the title of his baby. And so, in 1976, House of Hammer was born.
I’m ashamed to admit, though, that the first issue I “stumbled on” was not until Number 11, attracted to this by the word “Gorgon” on the cover; this female creature had been a favourite monster of mine ever since I read about Greek myths in a school textbook. 11 issues in and this was my first one. How the Hell could I have missed the previous ones? Not unless the same newsagent I had got this from hadn’t stocked them (it was the same place from where I would pick up the odd DC horror comic like Ghosts and House Of Mystery, right enough, so there was a good chance they did).
Still a primary school kid, this magazine was a veritable voyage of discovery for me, not least as I hadn’t even heard of the Hammer name before. I soon learned as I continued through the ensuing issues of the publication, educating me about what this company had accomplished and their outstanding output.
Just what wasn’t to like about this particular issue 11? It had the lot as far as I was concerned: the first part of a comic strip adaptation of an actual horror film (Hammer’s The Gorgon (1964)); an article on the movie itself; reviews of then then big horror/fantasy film releases, namely Burnt Offerings (1976), Zoltan – Hound of Dracula (1977), Tender Dracula (1977) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (a film I had been begging my mum to take me to see at our local fleapit) and a lovely feature on stop motion animation wizard Ray Harryhausen (to tie in with the Sinbad review). What a feast for my young eyes!
Once I had savoured the delights of this issue, I returned to the same newsagent in the hope that perhaps an earlier one was festering around somewhere on the stands. I think I must have turned that place upside down that afternoon, however my trip was not in vain. Behind a batch of dog-eared word-search puzzle books, I found issue 10. I could not believe my good fortune. No “Whizzer and Chips”, “Monster Fun” or “Whoopee!” for me this week then, it would have to be this issue of good ol’ HOH.
My purchase was well worth the sacrifice of those comics for these contents: a full comic strip adaptation of Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf (1961); reviews of new shockers like The Sentinel (1977) and Satan’s Slave (1976); a superb piece on werewolves in Cinema and a stunning still gallery; and an intriguing preview of (what would soon become a cinematic blockbuster) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When I showed off this latest acquisition to my pals, you’d better believe that there were jaws dropping right, left and centre!
Issue 12 couldn’t come quick enough for me. When I finally got my hands on it, I was not disappointed: the second part of the comic adaptation of The Gorgon (1964); reviews of the current crop of chillers, including two low-budgeters decidedly not for arachnophobes, Shudder (1977) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1977); a magnificent retro piece of the controversial Michael Reeves gem Witchfinder General (1968); and, since #12 was the last in Volume 1 of the magazine, a cracking checklist and summary content of the others before it. This gave me the invaluable opportunity to see exactly what I had missed out on all this time. In a way, it was galling because most of these issues were rapidly disappearing and my mum didn’t “do” mail order of horror magazines (this was something I would have to do later myself as a serious collector in tracking down those elusive missing issues in order to complete my set).
Not wishing my article here to become merely an index of the magazine issues and their contents, I will share with you only the personal highlights of the remainder of my memories of this marvellous magazine.
Being a huge dinosaur fan, my mum buying # 14 for me was a moment to treasure since the issue boasted the complete comic adaptation of the prehistoric Hammer classic One Million Years B.C. (1966) as well as an article on movie monsters of years gone by. This one also introduced me to a director who was to become a firm favourite of mine (once I had seen his films on video in years to come, that is), the one and only Dario Argento. The brief but breath-taking review of Suspiria (1976) (featuring, for a pre-teen like me, a couple of truly horrifying stills from the film) was a major insight into the world of Horror Cinema generally. Better was to come, though, with a later issue, this being #23, regrettably the last one of the 70s period, which featured more information on the Italian maestro’s fiendish films, an article electrified with some absolutely nightmarish stills from Suspiria especially, and an interview with the man himself. What a coup!
Interestingly, I avoided getting # 17 like the plague for a time, despite the delights of Vampire Circus (1971) being served up in the form of another captivating comic strip adaptation. This was a film I had longed to see after a solitary still from the film was featured in Denis Gifford’s mind blowingly brilliant A Pictorial History of Horror Movies tome; the unique idea of vampires in a circus intrigued and unnerved me in equal measure. The one thing that delaying me finally obtaining this issue was, rather bizarrely, a still from a film reviewed inside called Cathy’s Curse (1976), a recently released Canadian clone of The Exorcist (1973)/Carrie (1976) . Someone at my primary school had bought the issue before me and “smuggled” it in in his satchel. He then proceeded to frighten the living bejesus out of several classmates and I by churlishly brandishing the page with the aforementioned still (depicting a child with what looked like a gore-caked face clutching a creepy doll) in front of us. I thought that the bottom was going to come out of my soul. However, I braved it eventually and went on to purchase this stunner of an issue for myself. I just had to ensure that I didn’t go near the page featuring that nightmare-inducing still. Brrrr…
Issue 18 was another beaut for me (despite the somewhat disappointing cover ; nothing could compare with the genius that was artist Brian Lewis who had delivered many masterpieces in earlier editions of the mag) since it featured a review of another Argento gem, Deep Red (1975), and one on Alfred Sole’s Communion (1976) (aka Alice, Sweet Alice). This latter film had been doing the rounds at our local cinemas and the poster art in the press ad had terrified me so much that I was almost too scared to look at what was featured about it in the magazine!!! Illustrated with some pretty unsettling stills, the review was by the great Tony Crawley who, in his customary sarcastic style, delivered his honest verdict on the movie; he wasn’t impressed, although he gave credit where he felt it was due. However, his review didn’t put me off and later when the Video Age was upon us, I was able to seek out the film for myself and see what I made of it. I loved it, and COMMUNION, as anyone who knows me knows only too well, remains one of my favourite horror films of all time.
But I digress, back to House of Hammer and to a super smart move by Dez Skinn to devote so much of his issue 16 to a film that would become a worldwide phenomenon: Star Wars (1977). Writer John Brosnan’s brilliantly informative overview of the film was nicely complemented by a competition to win top quality STAR WARS masks. The film had been previewed by Alan Frank in an earlier issue, # 13, but this was a more extensive insight ahead of the film’s UK cinema release.
Obtaining the current issue of the magazine was trouble free since my local newsagent always had ample supplies. Tracking down the earlier ones I had missed out on was a different beast altogether, though. I think it took me well into the late 80s before (early 90, even!!) before my set was complete. Issue 3 was the last one I needed all that time, and I finally nailed it after many gruelling years of scouring and exploring.
When House of Hammer finally bid farewell at issue 23 (unannounced, I hasten to add; Dez Skinn didn’t even know himself at that time!) I was utterly devastated and felt that I had just lost a dear friend. Other horror film mags were there and thereabouts but to me these were simply just filling the space once occupied by my dear departed periodical.
Despite extremely earnest efforts, when the magazine returned in 1982, it wasn’t the same at all. But then, how could it be? Inevitable changes had taken place, although some articles were retained (like the continuing History Of Hammer article) but the old magic was gone, sadly. Admittedly, we were in an entirely different era with any trend-setting horror films few and far between so it wasn’t exactly the fault of the magazine itself. During this period, we were being saturated with slasher films, video nasties and other 80s cinematic shenanigans, some worthy of note, others worthy of the wheelie bin. In any event, this particular run of the periodical lasted for a short number of issues before it was time to say goodbye again, and this time for good.<
So, HOH, in all your many guises from initially House of Hammer thru Hammer’s House of Horror to Hammer’s Halls of Horror and then ultimately to just plain ol’ Halls of Horror, you thrilled me and educated me like no other horror magazine ever could or has since. Through a young person’s eyes, where the world of horror movies is an edgily forbidden area and scary place, you constantly wowed and chilled me with each successive issue and for that I am forever grateful. House of Hammer, if you ever decide to return, I’ll be right there waiting for you.