Tag Archives: Terence Fisher

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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

There is a scene in each of Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958),  Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur.  Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister.   In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen.   In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request.  After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile.

Still from Brides of Dracula (1960)For the first (and best) sequel to Horror of Dracula, Fisher and the writing team (which included an uncredited Anthony Hinds, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Pearcy) chose a disciple of Dracula, in the person of Baron Meinster (David Peel), as the antagonist rather than the Count himself.  The Baron is blond, pretty, manipulative, charming, and genuinely menacing.  Luckily, Peel fits the bill, although by general consensus he is no Christopher Lee.  Still, he is refreshingly different.  Such a choice allowed the production imaginative freedom and innovation.  The resulting film is inordinately elegant,  poetic and seething with atmosphere.

Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to start a job at a girl’s school when she is stranded at a local inn.  The Baroness Meinster arrives and offers to put Marianne up for the night at her castle.  The locals , well aware of the Baroness’ motives, attempt to to keep Marianne from accepting the invitation, to no avail.   Marianne is introduced to the Baroness’ imperious maid, Greta (Freda Jackson), and discovers that the Baroness’ son, the Baron Meinster, is a shackled prisoner in the castle.  The Baroness’ plan to feed Marianne to her son is upset when her guest releases the Baron from his chains of bondage.

Marianne flees the castle, confused and frightened, unaware that she has set a vampire free.  Peter Cushing‘s  Van Helsing, ever the father figure, discovers  her in the woods, takes her to the school, and, after hearing Mariann’s story, knows that his crusade to rid the world of vampires is far from finished.

Jackson, as Greta, is one of several acting delights here.  She cackles and theatrically waxes poetic.  She hams it up in several scenes, most notably one in which she assists a vampire’s attempt to resurrect himself directly through the soil.  Equally good is Martita Hunt (best known for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations-1946) who becomes her son’s Oedipal victim.  Miles Malleson also does a charming turn in the role of the alcoholic Dr. Tobler.  Cushing, as usual, conveys self-assured, icy precision in a part that  he seems  born to play.  Peel’s Baron puts the bite on Helsing and, in a blood-red, thrilling scene, the Doctor plants a burning iron to his own throat to cauterize the wound.  Cushing masters the scene in his inimitable way.

However, Monlaur, as Marianne, is merely decorative and, consequently, bland, which is a serious defect in the film.  Another glaring flaw is in the some slipshod writing (the result of too many hands in the pot, no doubt).  A compelling, eerie henchman character appears and is ingloriously dropped.  Van Helsing’s appearance is far too convenient and contrived.  A cheesy flying bat is a major distraction.  Despite  the flaws, however, Fisher’s enthusiastic direction is contagious; aided , in no small part, by lavish art direction and camera work.  The finale, at a windmill, is sumptuous and visually exciting.

Unfortunately, there would only be one more good film in the series; Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  After that, the series was pretty much turned over to the hacks and it did not take long at all for the rot to set in.

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

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

Terence Fisher never considered himself a “horror” filmmaker, and he clearly disliked the term.  While a number of Fisher’s film could be apt examples to drive home his point that he was more than a mere scare merchant, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) will suffice quite nicely. This is a quite literary film, far better than either of Universal Studio’s versions of The Wolfman (1941 & 2010).

Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (loosely adapting Guy Endor’s novel) weave a narrative tragedy through folklore, mythology, religious metaphor, and character revelation.  The symbols of class struggle ebb throughout the film, beginning in 18th century Catholic Spain.  A beggar is imprisoned in the dungeon by the powerful and callous Marques (Anthony Dawson).  Naturally, the beggar is forgotten about, cared for only by the jailer and his mute daughter.  Years later, after her father’s death,  the now grown servant girl (Yvonne Romain)  tends the beggar.  While cleaning the aged Marques’ room, Romain rejects her master’s sexual advances and is imprisoned in the very same dungeon occupied by the beggar.  After resisting the brutal, savage passions of the Marques, the  girl is raped by the crazed and dying beggar for whom she has cared these many years.  In retaliation, once released, she stabs and kills the cruel Marques, fleeing into the woods where she is found, face up in the river, by  Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), an empathetic patriarchal figure.

Still from Curse of the Werewolf (1961)Corledo’s servant Teresa (Hira Talfrey, who seems more like a wife than a servant) notices that their new guest is with child and dreads the thought of the baby being born on Christmas, which, according to her tradition, is an affront to God.  Dec 25th arrives and the child, Leon,  is tragically born to a dead mother, who is  finally released from the misery of a peasant life.

In a reversal of the Christ child’s dedication at the temple,  the local priest baptizes Leon, soliciting a storm from the heavens.   Even the baptismal water reacts to the sanctifying of this curse of birth. The water bubbles intensely and reflects the face of a gargoyle from above.  The motherly Teresa, the superstitious one, alone recognizes the sign, while the priest and Don Alfredo dismiss it.

Years later, the child Leon ventures out, tasting the sweet blood of a squirrel, killing lambs and goats.  By now Don Alfredo and the priest know that Leon suffers the curse of the werewolf and the priest warns that only love can relieve Leon from his affliction.  Surrogate parents Don Alfredo and Teresa supply that love to the boy, but as a man, Leon will need the true love of a woman, ala Beauty and the Beast, to harness the wolf.

Some reviewers have predictably commented that the first half of Curse is slow, yet it is in the first half that the narrative is uniquely compelling.  The film unfolds like a literary fairy tale.  Once the narrative takes the obligatory horror route, in the last quarter, with a gray-furred, Henry Hull-looking lycanthrope, it feels a bit recycled, complete with the beast, atop a cathedral,  being chased by the torch carrying mob.

Still, Oliver Reed is superb as the adult Leon, registering torment far more convincingly than either  Lon Chaney, Jr. or Benicio Del Toro.  Hira Talfrey  and, especially, Clifford Evans are equally accomplished as Leon’s concerned guardians.  There are genuinely effective moments of tingling suspense, such as Leon’s cornering an unfortunate prisoner in a cell.  Leon’s virtuous fiancee is his potential salvation, but the animal side of Leon emerges once he ventures out from his sanctuary into a hedonistic society; after which there is, literally, hell to pay.

Curse of the Werewolf is a fine example of a director who utilized a genre for his own aesthetic expression, much the same way that Rod Serling utilized science fiction for his own expressionist gain.

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.