If effort was all that mattered, Hammer Films: On Location would deserve top marks, since it’s clearly the result of many months of painstaking labour. But then, so is a scale model of St Paul’s Cathedral built out of matchsticks. You also have to factor things like utility and readability into the equation.
Aided by Hammer historian Wayne Kinsey, Gordon Thomson has gone to extraordinary lengths to track down every possible location featured in the British studio's horror, SF and adventure films, from 1952’s Four-Sided Triangle to 1975’s To The Devil A Daughter (fear not, On The Buses fans desperate to locate Butler’s house, Hammer’s comedies are dealt with in a brief appendix. It’s 2 Malden Road, Borehamwood, by the way.)
Thomson has pored over Ordnance Survey maps, quizzed rangers, farmers and geologists, and scoured schedules, aerial photos and council records in order to identify, say, the exact Dartmoor rock Peter Cushing’s Holmes stood on in The Hound Of The Baskervilles . Screengrabs from the films are set beside photographs of the locations today (we’ve lost a lot of train stations over the last 50 years and gained an awful lot of road signs…). Sometimes Thomson went to extraordinary lengths to get a matching snap – scaling a 50-foot-high fire station training tower, for example. It’s the sort of insane quest that only someone driven by a burning passion would take on.
Problem is, much of Hammer’s location shooting took place at one of their various studio homes, or within a five-mile radius. Follow in the authors' footsteps and you’ll spend an awful lot of time tramping around Black Park in Buckinghamshire, a site still regularly visited by film crews today because it’s adjacent to Pinewood Studios. Thomson has clearly spent many hours striving to identify, say, the exact tree Christopher Lee gets skewered against in Pirates Of Blood River , or which nondescript bit of road a carriage is seen thundering down. Whenever the book walks these well-trodden paths, the exhaustive detail can get a bit.. well, exhausting. Never before has a book included quite so many photos of anonymous bits of wood. It's a bit like reading a Doctor Who location guide that’s 25% discussion of gravel pits.
The interest level rises once we go further afield, although sadly the Hammer films that were the most peripatetic tended to be the lesser-known psychological thrillers like Paranoiac and Fear In The Night - Hammer's mittel-European villages mostly existed only on the studio lot. If you’re looking for a day out that you might be able to a drag a friend or partner along on (always an important factor with a locations guide), the chapter on 1963's The Damned is probably your best bet, providing the opportunity to trail Oliver Reed's motorcycle gang around the streets of Weymouth. We doubt many readers will plump for a tour of the housing estate from obscure child abuse drama Never Take Sweets From A Stranger , though.
The accompanying prose occasionally veers into a bland approximation of a local tourist information leaflet or an estate agent’s brochure - do we really need to be told that a bit of countryside, “lies within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and forms part of the Mole Gap To Reigate Escarpment Site Of Special Scientific Interest”? Or that a house that’s been converted into apartments boasts “a heated indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi and communal room with kitchen incorporated for the exclusive use of residents”? Probably not.
Fortunately, making-of anecdotes (Isla Blair freezing in a lake shooting Taste The Blood Of Dracula ; Brian Donlevy’s toupée blowing off during Quatermass 2 ) are sprinkled throughout. These, along with some interesting behind-the-scenes photos, bring a little human warmth to the swathes of meticulous directions.
And for a Hammer fan it is undeniably comforting to know where the ladies’ finishing school from Lust For A Vampire was (Hazelwood House in Kings Langley), or the chemists raided by an infected astronaut in The Quatermass Xperiment (Woods of Windsor, Queen Charlotte Street, Windsor), or where Peter Cushing filled up with holy water during Dracula AD 1972 (The Church Of Our Lady Dolours, Hammersmith) - even if you have no intention whatsoever of ever paying them a visit. So even though Hammer Films: On Location is not always the most scintillating read, it remains a pretty stunning achievement.
Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman