|Posted on October 24, 2012 at 1:00 AM|
A Tribute To: Terence Fisher
The average person who probably isn't all that much into the horror genre has probably never heard of him, but horror fans put director Terence Fisher up there with the best of them. Right on par with the likes of James Whale (who I covered last year around this time, another that is often overlooked), George Romero, Wes Craven and John Carpenter. There's plenty I could name that are great, but when it comes to Terence Fisher, I have a hard time thinking of many that were as important.
Let's first set the stage. It was the late 1950s. The horror genre had pretty much sunk to giant-monster and atomic-scare films. The classic, Gothic horror of the 1930s and 40s, the "golden age" as many dub it, were long gone as were a good portion of the great stars of that era.
Of course, that's in the United States. Hollywood long left those movies behind, most notably Universal who made had a cash-cow with the likes of the Frankenstein, Mummy and Dracula characters and pretty much just let them die. Enter Hammer Film Productions, a long-established little studio out of London that had a history of issues in establishing anything but was kicking around in the genre circuit with low (ultra-low) budget science fiction flicks and thrillers.
Then, the Studio had an idea (to make a long story short, this is about Fisher, not Hammer, though they do a bit hand in hand). It went like this: recognizable horror icons. Full color. Sexual. Bloody. British Gothic horror at its finest.
Their first approach was with adapting (very loosely) Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. The book had been in public domain for years, and nobody had bothered to touch it again since the last Universal Frakenstein film in 1948, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which kind of shows where Universal was in terms of handling the material by the late 40s as well). After finally getting a script, they needed someone to get the thing shot.
Here we see Fisher directing Christopher Lee as Dracula on the left and Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein on the right.
Fisher had been directing films for about 15 years before his first dive into Hammer Horror with 1957s Curse of Frankenstein, but none were very acclaimed - much like the early years of Hammer Studios itself where Fisher directed a handful. They were pretty standard b-movie fare for the most part: lots of crime melodramas and morality tales about alcoholism, a few comedies and even fewer genre films, such as the science fiction film Spaceways, but overall he wasn't anybody special. But neither was Hammer Studios until both teamed up to re-invent everything, from horror genre to the studio's filmmaking focus to Fisher's entire career.
It was an easy formula: take these classic tales, remake them in color, get some solid directors and great British actors looking for work and blam: instant classic. Hammer Film dove in first with the Quatermass films, think "Kolchak before Kolchak" and you'll get an idea. And if you don't know what Kolchak is think "X-files meets Indiana Jones." It was a hit, a sequel planned, but so was this new involvement in horror and the first to kick it all off was the idea at Hammer Studios to film a cheap, basic adaptation of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (Frankenstein being in public domain). After some re-writes, Hammer had a script, needed a director, and they went to their stable and trotted out Terrence Fisher who coming off of two unremarkable crime films.
The script, truth be told, was rather unremarkable though it was daring to not focus on the Monster and focus on the Baron Frankenstein himself, much like the source material did. But what Fisher did with it is the real story. It was Frankenstein in color, with blood and a slight hint of gore, murder, thrills, chills. Keep in mind that the horror genre was pretty low-class since the 1940s. It had gone more into the "atomic monster" and "alien invasion" route than anything. Curse of Frankenstein was, even for the time, pretty low-rent, but it damn sure didn't feel like it. Not with the earnest and sincere way everyone involved approached it. Despite the low-budget and the fact it was mostly shot entire in a studio and had only one major set, it did wonders for the Frankenstein story with solid storytelling and amazing performances. It, instead of making it a "monster movie" turned into a character study of Victor Frankenstein and how his obsession ruined his life. Hell, his Creation is barely in the thing.
He gave room for Peter Cushing, in his first of soon-to-be-many films done for Hammer Films and with director Fisher (likewise for the Frankenstein creature, played by Christopher Lee), to simply deliver solid acting. It's melodramatic. Theatrical. But now shot in color with dark, Gothic sensibilities, it made an entire new style of horror without even realizing it. Every Hammer film from this point on, whether it was directed by Fisher or not, would have this same style.
And you know you have done something right because the critics hated it. Calling it "offensive" and "degrading." It all boils down to that shift to color and darker atmosphere and overall earnestness of the whole thing. That's what colorized blood and lots of breasts get you, I suppose. But all that got it noticed. It got Hammer Films noticed. Made them a ton of money. It also got Fisher noticed. People wanted to see more of Peter Cushing and, in a few years, they would demand to see more of Christopher Lee. Hammer began to make a name for itself, in style.
On the left, one reason why Hammer films were popular: blood in color with a hint of gore. On the right, two more reasons...guess what they are.
A Bloody Mess
In 1958, Hammer rolled out another: Dracula, aka The Horror of Dracula. It brought back both Cushing and Lee, as vampire hunter Van Helsing and the Count respectively, and reunited them with director Fisher once more. It was a far more bloody affair, and far more sexualized, than anyone had really seen Dracula before. The Universal films only hinted at it, but it as almost the 60s, man...time to show more cleavage and blood and all the things people want.
That brings me to another brief aside: Sure, it might have been British films with great British actors based on classic works of fiction, but Fisher's films weren't "classy" by any means. They were b-movies all the way, exploitative as they could get. They were simply patient as the stories developed gradually rather than thrust it all at you at once. In many cases, you don't even see the "monster" or the "evil" until the very end, and in most of his films the monster is more talked about than shown. Such as The Gorgon where you barely see the creature, or even his most famous film, Dracula, where Dracula, as a vampire, really is more an ominous pretense than a physical threat. He doesn't become that until the climatic and (then) graphic finale where he decomposes in sunlight.
This opening title shot, I feel, embodies Hammer perfectly. Dark, moody, then the blood drips down over the name...this isn't your dad's Legosi Dracula. This was a new generation of horror.
Though Quatermass and The Curse of Frankenstein built the foundation for Hammer Studios, Dracula skyrocketed everyone to super startdom. They began franchising and rolling out movies left and right. Even Fisher himself was hard at work, because he not only got Dracula out in 1958, he got out a Frankenstein sequel(also starring Cushing) with The Revenge of Frankenstein and, just for the hell of it I suppose, an adaptation of The Hound of Baskervilles (again, with Peter Cushing and with Christopher Lee this time around) for the studio as well. This was studio efficiency at its finest: use the same directors, sets, actors and effects and you can roll out three movies in a year with those elements in place. Straight from the Roger Corman book of film production.
For the next decade, Fisher would pretty much do nothing but Hammer films, nearly all with Cushing and/or Lee. A few noteworthy ones: The previously mentioned Hound of the Baskervilles with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Lee as Henry Baskerville. Though I'm fond of the classic Basil Rathbone Holmes films, this one is a personal favorite and Cushing really, truly should have done more Holmes movies himself. The Curse of the Werewolf is a very original and interesting take on the classic Werewolf tale, which was also dormant (along with The Mummy which Fisher directed, though I've never been a fan of the film to be honest).
One of my favorites is The Gorgon in 1964. Again with Cushing and Lee. Here we have a story based on Greek myth remade for a horror setting, something you really don't get all that often. It's surprisingly effective. Another is actually one of the more popular Hammer films, The Devil Rides Out in 1968. It came at a time when the "Satanic cult" was a popular trend in books and starting to gain momentum in film, and it's a very interesting, psychological yet mystical take on a devil worshiping cult. It didn't have Cushing, but it had Christopher Lee and it's arguably the best film Lee did for any of the Hammer films. It was a pet project for him, that's for sure, and it showed.
The standard bearer through all this, though, were the Frankenstein films. Fisher directed five more of the Frankenstein films (out of the 7 made by Hammer, and only one of the non-Fisher Frankenstein films were worth their weight). It started simple enough with Curse of Frankenstein, but by the late 60s it was all still going pretty strong. They were, overall, the most consistent things Hammer was doing and the duo of Fisher and Peter Cushing, who loved reprising his role as the mad Baron, made them immensely entertaining. Having a set of strong scripts from the Hammer stable helped as well, but you really needed someone like Fisher to reel those in as there were, often, more than one writer throwing out ideas on the page.
What's most interesting is how you can really see Fisher grow as a filmmaker over all this, the Frankenstein movies are practically a visual lesson of evolution as we move from the basic and simple to the more grand and bold by Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (probalby my favorite out of the bunch, though probably my favorite Hammer film as a whole to be honest, even if Monster From Hell is probably the better made film...a tough call). True, bigger budgets helped in getting great things on screen, but you can literally watch him become more bold with his shots, take more chances with stunts and special effects, dive more in to the themes of sexuality, morality and the ambiguity of good versus evil with more focus rather than simple exploitation. And it's not like people didn't notice. I stumbled on this clipping from the tail-end of all thse flicks from a Peter Cushing fan site, covering the latest Frankenstein film, of course. People knew Terence well, it's just time that's caused a lot of people to forget about him.
More appropriately, though, is how refined and damn good-looking his films gradually became. You can see the improvement in atmosphere and shots and pacing by 1960s Curse of the Werewolf alone. His horror films weren't about shock and awe, though it manged to get a nice bloody squirt for the camera and some cleavage shots when appropriate, but they simply were basic stories told well. They dealt far more with character and emotion, dips into madness and sexuality at times, but never had a "gotcha" moment and a jump scare. It was the methodical type of horror I've always appreciated over the "here's the twist, now prepare to go 'boo!."
Deviations Here and There
Fisher wasn't just about Hammer and horror, though. He did films outside that studio, one of my favorites being the sci-fi film The Earth Dies Screaming. Hell, that title alone kind of says it all, as well as this trailer:
It kind of played out like a very British Twilight Zone episode, which I love. What's kind of funny is that it feels about ten years too late, it would have been right at home in 1955 rather than 1965. He also did a nice little sci fil film with his trope of Cushing and Lee with Island of the Burning Damned (also known as Night of the Big Heat). It was a better made film with a better cast, also in color which is nice, though I prefer the former for the Twilight Zone quality of it even if it is a bit dated.
But, really, it was the Hammer films that made Fisher, as Fisher made the Hammer films. It was a symbiotic relationship between a filmmaker and a studio. He built up great relationships, notably Peter Cushing whom he directed in 14 films and Christopher Lee in 12, often together. He was 52 when he pretty much reinvented himself as a filmmaker, taking charge of Hammer's films and doing little outside of that. You can't talk about one without talking about the other, or in this case writing as this has been both a Fisher tribute and a Hammer horror tribute. Hey, you can't blame me, he only directed just about everything they put out.
Despite the prolific nature and quality and the fact that most people, at least in horror circles, know of the films, many don't give Fisher the credit he deserves. Horror fans love his work, though, especially the more you watch of it.The horror genre was flopping around like a fish out of water and needed something to latch on to, and Hammer and Fisher gave them that. Hammer is important, most people know that, but the man behind the camera on most of those major films they produced and got out there at a time when nobody else really was needs to be acknowledged in the same breath as a Whale or Carpenter.
I, like many, started out with Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. Good. Solid filmmaking. Then went into Revenge of Frankenstein and Hound of Baskervilles. From that point on, I was hooked. Even the not-so-great Fisher flicks, because even great directors have their share of bad movies. There's a certain aesthetic and "feel" to his films that nobody was doing at the time and really haven't been able to show since despite the efforts to do another Frankenstein or Dracula movie. He pretty much set the standard without intending to set the standard.
Long Lasting Standards
Hammer movies are a tradition to me. Everything about them screams that time of year when things get a little darker and a little scarier. We have Terence Fisher to pretty much thank for all that. There's such a great variety, and even the longer-running series manage to be at least entertaining (or in the case of the Frankenstein movies, actually get better and better).
What's best is that they're so damn easy to start getting in to.There's just enough to make it a marathon but not too many to turn you away as though you're trying to watch a television series that's been going on for five seasons. It's a digestible and great way to get into horror as a whole, not just for quality entertainment but because it's an important part of cinematic history (many of these films haven't been outdone). Fisher made 24 films in about a 15 year span. Some were bad, most were good, a few utterly exceptional. I can't think of any other director with that proficiency and workman like approach to filmmaking yet still deliver quality films that have really stood the test of time. Alcoholism took its toll on the man, who was deemed uninsurable by the mid 70s and passed away at the age of 76 in 1980, but man did he just lay it all out there on the table in the time he had.
So when that time of year comes around, there's just an automatic retreat to marathon Hammer horror watching on my part as I get in the mood for the macabre and the Gothic. Truth is, there's no other set of films that express that as perfectly as these made by Terence Fisher before or since they were made.