Tag Archives: Terence Fisher

THE GORGON (1964)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

The Gorgon (1964) has a hopelessly silly synopsis: it’s basically a werewolf story transplanted onto a minor Greek myth with an even more ridiculously executed monster (complete with rubber snakes in her hair). Yet, with a stylish script from John Gilling, sublime characterization, and poetic beauty, Terence Fisher enthusiastically managed to transform this irredeemable trash into an artistically rewarding experience. Impossible, but true.

The Gorgon is an oddity in the Hammer cannon. Its pacing is deliberate and forlorn. The “monster” is the mythological Gorgon Megaera, inhabiting amnesiac victim Barbara Shelley, who again gives a performance well above that of the standard Hammer glamour girl. Unfortunately, Shelley does not play Megaera herself, a poor decision which blunts the tragic impact of the production.

For several years a number of unexplained deaths have occurred, during the full moon, in a small German village. The most recent victims are a model and her artist boyfriend. The father of the late artist, professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goddliffe) inquires into his son’s death but is met with resistance from the entire town, including old Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing). Namaroff has a motive for evading the truth, since he is not-so-secretly in love with Carla Hoffman (Shelley), whom he knows to be the Gorgon.

Although the human identity of the Gorgon is blatantly obvious from the start, it is the pathos projected by Cushing’s Phantom of the Opera-like hero (scarred by unrequited love) and Shelley’s genteel torment (inspired by the doctor’s jealousy and evasiveness) that creates the striking emotional milieu throughout the film.

Professor Heitz soon falls prey to the Gorgon. The scene plays out first in the beautifully atmospheric castles ruins, during the autumn moon, where Heitz spies the shadowy figure of the Gorgon.  Running from the horrible visage of Megara, Heitz makes it to his office and lives long enough to write his second son, Paul, a letter as he slowly and memorably turns to stone.

Barbara Shelley in The Gorgon (1954)Paul (Richard Prasco) is a student of Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee, in a rare, and quite good, turn as a sympathetic character). Paul is given leave from school upon the news of his father’s death. Like his father, Paul meets the same resistance from Namaroff and the townspeople. Carla is sympathetic to Paul’s frustrations and a love triangle develops, which enhances the inevitable tragedy of all three characters. One scene in particular conveys the expressionistic iciness of the film. Carla, in hopes of escaping the town and the shadowy spirit of Megaera, meets Paul in the same ruins in which his father met his fate. Carla sits regally in a throne-like chair and descends, fur coat draped around her shoulders, shuddering from the coldness of the season and the dread spirit lurking. The scattered, elegiac autumn leaves with their somber hues weave a spell akin to a doomed medieval fairy tale; Carla, inexplicably, cannot resist, much like the Gorgon’s victims cannot resist the act of looking at her deadly face.

Professor Meister, who has arrived to assist Paul, knows that it is Carla who is possessed by Megaera, but Paul passionately rejects his professor’s conclusion and is even more intensely driven to get Carla away from the town and Namaroff. Namaroff, channeling Lon Chaney tragic magic, sacrifices himself for his unrequited love, but he is not the only victim. Indeed, the film ends quite pessimistically.

Fortunately, the title character is, for the bulk of the film, only briefly seen, half emerging from the shadows of the columned ruins, or in one evocative scene, in the reflection of a dark pool. In the climax, when Megaera is finally seen full on, the letdown is severe enough to nearly wreck the film. Still, The Gorgon is a refreshingly unique oddity in the Hammer canon, thanks, in no small part, to a director who took the most unlikely material and crafted it into something poetic.

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher. The previous entries in the series were Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) marked the return of Terence Fisher to the Hammer Frankenstein series.  Fisher had been temporarily ousted after the studio’s displeasure over the director’s character driven Phantom of the Opera (1961).  Freddie Francis had been assigned to the Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and the predictable, pedestrian result was a case of the studio quite obviously having shot itself in the foot.

Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds showed that, even with a lurid, studio-assigned title, a visionary team can do imaginative, innovative  wonders, much in the same way that Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had delivered a sublime film from I Walked with a Zombie (1943), studio be damned.

Frankenstein Created Woman is hardly flawless, but it is full of inimitable ideas and bold style.  In lesser hands, Woman would have been an abject failure.  A prisoner (Duncan Lamont) is being escorted to the guillotine.  He is boastful and defiant, until he discovers, to his intense horror, that his son Hans is witnessing his execution from afar.  Parental concern overwhelms the sinful father but, alas, too late.  Young Hans witnesses his father’s decapitation.

Still from Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)Years later, the adult Hans (Robert Morris) visits the site of his father’s execution.  That guillotine becomes a recurring image, as it was in the Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).  Hans works for Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). Frankenstein’s obsession here is the soul itself, and the unfolding events will plunge the Baron into unfamiliar territory, even for him.

The film narrative sympathizes with Frankenstein’s contempt for bourgeoisie society.  Hans is wrongly accused of murder, framed by three upper class hooligans.  Society assumes guilt of Hans by association with his late father and Hans is condemned.  Although Frankenstein has a genuine, albeit cool-toned, affection for Hans, as usual he sees beyond conventional circumstances and realizes that Hans’ tragedy can serve a greater purpose.  When Hans’ girlfriend, the deformed Christina (Susan Denberg) commits suicide after her Romeo’s death, Frankenstein transfers Hans’ soul into the drowned girl.

Christina is reborn into a beautiful, new woman whom the fatherly Hertz grooms and educates.  Hertz assures Christina that her seemingly cold father, Frankenstein, is a great, visionary man whom she should respect and be grateful to.  However, Hans’ soul takes over Christina and calls for revenge against the three who had wronged them both.  The film plunges into an almost standard revenge plot, but it is underlined with Fisher’s genre driven, unique pop theology.  The trio of Frankenstein, Christina and Hans becomes a metaphoric trinity in Fisher’s hands and he infuses this development with typically elegant, icy grandeur.

Lamont, in his small role, gives a memorable, stand-out performance and Walter, as usual, is a delight.  Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein is not the focus of Woman, yet he is able to evoke cautious empathy, and divinely inspired obsession.  Denberg and Morris are adequately decorative.  Denberg had been a Playboy model and she looks the part, convincingly conveying innocence, in sharp contrast to the real-life candle burning of the actress.

The two opening sequences, at the guillotine and the resurrection of the Baron on ice (by the presiding Hans and Hertz) are excitingly staged with Fisher’s typical athletic prowess.

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher. The previous entry in the series was Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

Director Terence Fisher had quickly grown bored with the Hammer Dracula series, along with the character of the Count.  For the two sequels, Fisher omitted the title character from the first (Brides of Dracula, 1960) and then made him secondary to Barbara Shelley’s character in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  However, Fisher clearly reveled in the Baron Frankenstein character and focused primarily on the creator, as opposed to the creation.

In the fourth of the series, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the Baron allegorically became God the Father in Fisher’s idiosyncratic take on the Trinity.  In that film, Peter Cushing’s Baron is empathetic and waxes poetic at the tragic conclusion.  In the fifth film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and Cushing create an alternative perspective on Frankenstein.  Here, the Doctor is at his most obsessed and least sympathetic.

Still from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a relentlessly paced, visceral, and nihilistic film.  The opening, bouncing-off-the-wall sequence, in which the masked Baron interrupts a potential burglar—who in turn stumbles upon a gruesome laboratory straight out of a Josef Mengele nightmare—juxtaposed, as usual, to James Bernard’s athletic score,  is all worthy of Franjou.

The striking Veronica Carlson gives the best performance of  her short-lived career as the tragic Anna; the Baron’s landlord, whom he blackmails and brutally rapes.  Carlson registers complete devastation in a skillfully tense scene in which a water main bursts at the boarding house to reveal the hand of the Baron’s latest victim.

Unfortunately, the rape scene, inserted by the meddlesome producer, throws off the film.  Fisher, Cushing, and Carlson all rightfully objected to it as it is unnecessary, nonsensical and cheapening.  That scene aside, the rest of the film is so well directed and acted that it clearly is the best of Hammer’s Frankenstein series.

The dependable Thorley Walters returns as an acidic inspector, Freddie Jones brings real pathos to the transplanted Dr. Brandt, and Maxine Audley even evokes sympathy as the much put upon Ella, who is, on the surface, an unsympathetic character.  Still, the film belongs to the Cushing’s increasingly emaciated egomaniac Baron Frankenstein, who is vile here, yet never cartoonish.  Cushing is hopelessly charming, a progressive whom we root for (when putting bourgeoisie conservatives in their place), yet he is callous, single-minded,  and dangerously narcissistic .

Together with The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is Fisher at his most assured and at the top of his form.

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Terence Fisher is rarely counted among the great horror auteurs, yet he certainly defines our ideal of contemporary horror far more than the ethereal Tod Browning, the old world Brit James Whale or the sublime Val Lewton stalwart Jacques Tourneur.  For many years, Fishers’ Horror of Dracula (1958) was ranked by many critics and genre fans as the greatest horror film.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) is the finale of Fishers’ vampire trilogy and is generally considered the weakest. While it lacks the imaginative touch of Brides of Dracula (1960), Prince is an underrated, worthy conclusion to the trilogy, vigorously characteristic of Fishers’ penchant for fervent religious drama.

The film belongs primarily to Barbara Shelley, who was easily Hammer’s best actress and, consequently, was repeatedly used by the studio; a rarity for a studio who tended towards a new glamour girl for each film.

Shelley is Helen; an ever constipated, repressed Victorian type on vacation with her husband and in-laws. The foursome meet Fr. Shandor, a charismatic and provocative monk, at a local inn. Andrew Keir invests personality into his role of the priest, who warns the couples to stay clear of the castle. Fisher expertly builds tension in the first quarter of the film. Even though Dracula has been dead for a decade, the local villagers refuse to acknowledge his castle and still attempt to stake dead young maidens, hence Shandor’s natural contempt for his flock.

Still from Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)Predictably, the couples wind up spending the night at castle Dracula, despite the warnings. Philip Latham’s remarkably menacing Klove is Dracula’s disciple, awaiting the opportunity to resurrect his master, which has now been given to him. Helen’s husband, played with apt blandness by Charles Tingwell, will not heed his wife’s impassioned pleas to leave. In typical Fisher fashion, the seemingly prim and proper heroine proves to be one who is right after all, by nature of her virtuous caution.  Helen falls victim to the recklessness of her husband Continue reading DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)