Exclusive: We Chat with Hammer Chief Simon Oakes about Christopher Lee's Return to Horror and the 'Let the Right One In' Remake!


For longtime horror fans, there's something magical about the words "Hammer Horror." They conjure up images of Christopher Lee's feral Dracula, Peter Cushing's dashing Van Helsing, and countless buxom beauties in diaphanous nightgowns running through gothic castles and moonlit forests. For decades, Hammer was the premiere horror-film studio, giving us countless reasons to sit in darkened theaters. And since it stopped producing fright films, it seems there have been just as many attempts to bring Hammer back. The boldest attempt, however, is currently being orchestrated by producer Simon Oakes, who's readying Christopher Lee's return both to fright films and the world of Hammer with The Resident, along with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves' re-imagining of Let the Right One In. Oakes recently spoke with us long distance from his office in the U.K., and revealed some of his plans to make the world tremble once more before the horror of Hammer.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to revive Hammer. Can you talk about the genesis of this, what appears to be the strongest attempt yet?

There's a number of things… From a personal view, I've always had an ambition to build a legitimate and properly funded, British-based film company, to start with. But I think at the end of the day… If I say "global" that sounds ridiculous, but we are in a global industry, and the idea that you make films for just one market doesn't work anymore. Probably the French can do that because the way they are set up with the subsidy. But I needed to start somewhere and I'd been thinking about it for some time, I've been working for Liberty Global for ten years, the cable industry. Truthfully, what happened was that while I was ruminating about this I was flying to New York and I picked up a magazine, and this magazine referred to this football game being like a "Hammer house of horror." Then on the way back from New York I picked up a W and it said "One of these models had hair like a hammer heroine." I thought that was just amazing that this brand, this iconic film company, which for thirty-five years hadn't made a movie, had entered the vernacular. To me, what that spelled was that it was something deeply embedded in the culture of people – particularly in the U.K., and with certain film directors and creators – that this was a brand that wouldn't die. So that sort of got me going to be truthful, but it was sort of a serendipitous thing. The more I looked into the past of Hammer, the movies they've made… Of course I knew, as a kid growing up, the hammer movies I was allowed to watch. I mean, remember a lot of these things, they had eighteen ratings in those days, and they're not, compared to what you have today, really scary, but they're wonderful. And there's a whole series of genres within genre which is what I love about Hammer. They had the aliens with Quatermass, they had the walking dead with The Mummy, they had the vampire lore, they had Dracula and Frankenstein, they had the women in peril, psychological thrillers. They seemed to cover all the genres that were within the horror oeuvre. So that really attracted me, and I thought, "It's amazing – there aren't many film brands in the world." I mean Disney's certainly one – and Hammer. When you say, "Hammer," people go "Hammer Horror," you know? I thought that was just extraordinary, that nobody had really done much about it.

So that's a long-winded way of telling how it happened but then it was about backing it up with investment. The previous people over the years had talked about it but spent all their time trying to mine the back catalogue and talk about trading remake rights, and what I thought was important was that we had really proper investments, so we could actually invest in our own movies and our own development. And reposition Hammer with a link to the past but make it relevant for a modern audience. Because the audience has changed radically in the last thirty-five years. So the second part of it was to prepare a proper business plan with proper funding both for development and production, which is what we did. I'm sure you've been to our website – it's all chronicled. We've raised a hundred million euros of equity and research-and-development money. We obviously spend it judiciously, but that gave us a chance to put our money where our mouth was. What I believe it will mean when it comes to the back catalogue titles, if we decide to re-imagine Quatermass or decide to re-imagine The Nanny with the studios that co-own these rights with us, they will take us more seriously than they did the previous management or that they did when I announced that we'd buy the company.

You've got the actor most associated with Hammer, Christopher Lee, as well as Hilary Swank, who's on board as producer as well as actor. Can you talk about how Hilary joined the project?

I guess, again, The Resident to my mind fitted into that group of films Hammer made between ‘57 and '63, which were these women-in-peril type of films – The Nanny, Scream of Fear, Hell Is a City, etc. It was a proper nourish film, sort of in the Hitchcockian mold. Basically, it's a really super, fantastic script by Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote Secretary. What I decided was that Hammer shouldn't make what I call "torture porn" or "gornography," that it would damage the legacy of the brand to suddenly come out with a film in the image of a Saw or Hostel. I have no judgment about those films except to say that Hammer would not make films like that. So we thought it would be very cool – number one – to get a double Oscar-winning actress in the first Hammer movie; how cool is that? And second – Christopher, who's just unbelievable at age eighty-seven…  What I wanted to do with his character who is the grandfather of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's character… I was looking of the age demographic and the actors, and said, "Why are we even thinking of these other people? There's only one man who should play this part and that's Christopher Lee." Because then I can link the past with the present, if you follow me. He did it based on the screenplay and the fact that the screenplay is fantastic. We've got a tremendous crew, we've got an Oscar winning D.P., an Oscar-winning costumer designer, we obviously had Hilary for the main part, Jeffery Dean Morgan. Christopher is extraordinary, he's four thousand feet above sea level in Santa Fe at the age of eighty-seven. It's amazing.

You've got Wake Wood coming in addition to The Resident. Can you talk about the other films you have in development?

We start production this year on Let the Right One In, the re-make of the Swedish vampire movie. We saw that a couple of years ago, we thought it was amazing and we knew that it would be critically acclaimed, but get a small audience for obvious reasons, because of the fact that it's subtitled. So Matt Reeves came on board from Cloverfield. We're doing quite a faithful adaptation of it, but we're fleshing it out a little bit. We're not going to change it massively, just make it very accessible to a wider audience. That will film this year. Our slate is just beginning to settle for next year. We have The Woman in Black, which is a famous novella by Susan Hill, which is also sort of our first, if you like, traditional ghost story; which fits into the walking dead genre. Then we have a film called The Quiet Ones, which is about a group of scientists in Cambridge, a true story about scientists in Cambridge, who instead of doing what they should be doing and working on DNA, decide on creating a poltergeist. That's being written by Oren Moverman. So those are two pictures for next year, and there's probably a third that we are not sure about the timing of yet. So we intend to be very active in development, we want to be active on the net. We really need to get our act together about how we work on digital. The reason we did that little thing called Beyond the Rave, was that we felt there was an audience of sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds who never heard of Hammer. But the social networking sites was a place to show them who and what Hammer was in the past and what it could be in the future.

That's our plan. And, basically, to be frank with you – having conversations with people like you guys so that you know what we're up to, and there can be talking and blogging. You know the horror community better than anybody in the States. I want to understand it. And I want to hear from people like you how you think we're going about our business.

The original Let the Right One In is, as you said, adored by genre fans and critics. Can you talk about what you think Matt will bring to his take on it?

I think the original is fascinating in its exposition, but at the same time there is a doggerel element to it in terms of the mood and setting. So I think it takes it out into a more accessible setting. I think perhaps there is a little more characterization in terms of the two central characters. To be perfectly frank with you, this is making an astonishing story – which however hard you might try or I might try to get people to go see the original, they're never going to do it – more accessible to a much larger audience. I think perhaps, again, the roughness of the original is great – and when I talk about faithful, I don't want to put words in Matt's mouth, because he is the creative filmmaker here, and we very much protect that with our directors – but I think it'll just have perhaps a little sheen to it that makes it a little more accessible I think. But again, I don't want to tempt faith. It's a relatively faithful adaptation. There are a number of things that we're doing which I don't want to give away, which I think open it out a little bit more, and make it a little bit more thrilling. But at the same time we're not gonna mess around by having crazy effects and stuff like that. I mean, one of my favorite scenes in the original is when she goes outside, and the camera pans back on a dolly and you see her scampering up the side of the building. That's just genius. [Laughs.] I love that.

Since Matt made the Godzilla film more accessible to many people with Cloverfield, he seems to be a good choice to adapt this material.

I think that's right. And he's one of the world's great enthusiasts, which is fantastic.

Christopher Lee has many Hammer films to his credit – any chance we might see him in more of your productions?

Well, listen, I think he'd drop dead before he stops working. Again, I think this is the important thing… We're never gonna put him in a movie for the wrong reasons. It's very possible for example there may be a part for him in The Woman in Black. It's very possible that might happen depending on his health and what he wants to do. But at the moment there's nothing specific. I'm sad Peter Cushing's not around as well. The thing that you know about these two guys is that they were fantastic actors. They really were fantastic actors who could hold their own in any form of performance, in any form of genre. A great stage actor, Peter, as well. They were great actors and I think that's often forgotten about Christopher Lee. I daren't think how many movies he's made, but he's also had an Indian summer in his life. Because most young kids or people in their late teens or twenties, they only know Christopher Lee from the Rings trilogy. They don't know him from the Hammer films, which is interesting.