Hammer nails fresh horror slate

Andy Cull runs a videostore in south London reputed to rent out the largest collection of horror films anywhere in Britain.

Who better, then, to write one of the first movies to be shot in 25 years under the Hammer banner?

Cull’s script, titled “Reason,” is one of three projects on the revived production slate of Hammer Films, the venerable Brit horror label best known for cult classics such as “The Devil Rides Out,” “Quatermass and the Pit” and endless Dracula and Frankenstein movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

The company’s other new projects include “Supernatural,” by veteran Aussie script editor Chris Fitchett, and “Jeb” by Kiwi comedy scribe Nick Ward.

Hammer lay effectively dormant for two decades, before being taken over by new management a couple of years ago. Now it’s leaving behind the lurid plotlines and cardboard sets of its back catalog, and attuning itself to the more demanding tastes of today’s fright fans.

Topper Terry Ilott knows the company is re-entering a crowded market.

“Everybody’s got a horror label these days,” he says. “If you’ve got an axe, you’re pretty much in business. But a lot of those movies are really action films. We’ve tried to stay away from stalk ‘n’ slash films and creature features. We think there’s a market for intelligent horror, not comfortable psychological thrillers but films that are really scary.”

From behind the counter of his Academy Video store in Clapham, with more than a thousand titles on his shelves, Cull is well-placed to gauge what his fellow horror addicts want. He’s no fan of gore, preferring the realism of contempo Asian chillers.

“The movies coming out of Japan and Korea are all based on suspense and tension, which goes back to my first love of Hitchcock films like ‘The Birds,'” he says. “You have to have realistic characters that you can care about, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Cull conceived “Reason” to be as true to life as possible, even setting the script in his own home. It’s about a couple looking after a paranoid friend, whose demons turn out to be real.

“Jeb” is the first stab at horror by Ward, best known for the black comedy “Stickmen.” It’s about a family haunted and torn apart by a creature living in the walls of their house, who knows their deepest desires.

“Supernatural” is a debut screenplay by Fitchett, formerly a development exec at Film Victoria. After a failed heist, a gang of criminals flees to the Outback to escape the law, only to find something far worse waiting for them.

All three movies are slated to shoot over the next year. Hammer will co-produce the pics, all budgeted in the $4 million range, with Chris Brown’s Pictures in Paradise, based in Queensland, Australia.

Hammer is planning to raise £16 million ($30 million) through an Enterprise Investment Scheme, a form of British tax shelter occasionally used to fund low-budget movies. This is being launched Feb. 13 by EIS specialist Random Harvest Pictures, with half of the coin destined for Hammer and the rest intended for Random Harvest’s own slate.

As a horror aficionado, Cull admits that, were he not involved himself, he would be dubious about the prospects for a Hammer revival, particularly since the original movies now look so cheesy to modern eyes.

“You have to remember that when Hammer movies were being made, they were delivering real scares for the audience of the time,” he says. “The important thing is to try to re-create that impact, to get away from the cardboard sets and prove they are here and now.”

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