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Terence Fisher, Hammer's Horror Maestro - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2010

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If there's one director who is identified with British gothic cinema more than anyone else, and credited with giving colour to (international) horror cinema, this man's undoubtedly Terence Fisher (though to be honest, he wasn't the first to make horror flicks in colour, just the first to use colour to its fullest effect). And it was also Fisher - together with his home studio Hammer of course - who relaunched (gothic) horror cinema pretty much single-handedly at a time (the late 1950's) when everyone believed the genre dead and buried.

It's somewhat ironic then that someone who has injected new blood into an ailing genre was actually a late bloomer who hadn't directed his first movie until 44 years of age and hadn't zeroed in on the horror genre until his early 50's. Also, during his career, Fisher received remarkably little critical attention let alone acclaim for his work and was generally dismissed as a hack director, while especially after his death, with film history correcting many views of old, he is more and more considered a true master of the genre.

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Born in 1904, Terence Fisher received his education at a military school, joined the merchant marine at age 16 - but dropped out after five or so years, considering himself unsuited for life on the sea. He then tried his hand on several (land-based) jobs until he eventually entered the film industry in 1933, becoming a clapper boy. The first film Terence Fisher worked on reportedly was the musical comedy Falling for You (1933) by Jack Hulbert (who also starred) and Robert Stevenson. In 1933 though, Fisher was already 29 years old and thus a bit old for a clapper boy ...

Slowly, Fisher moved up the ranks in the mid-1930's, serving as third assistant director on Aunt Sally (1933, Tim Whelan), and from 1934 on as assistant editor on a bunch of films starting with Evensong (1934, Victor Saville). In the mid-1930's, Terence Fisher had no higher aspirations than to become chief editor himself, so when he reached that goal in 1936 (at 32 years of age), he figured he had reached everything he ever wanted/needed to reach, and he stayed with the job for more than 10 years, editing films for big (and not so big) names of the British film industry such as Robert Stevenson (Tudor Rose, 1936), William Beaudine (the Will Hay comedies Where There's a Will and Windbag the Sailor, 1936), once more the Jack Hulbert-Robert Stevenson pairing (Jack of All Trades, 1936), Walter Forde (Atlantic Ferry, 1941, The Peterville Diamond, 1942, Flying Fortress, 1942, One Exciting Night, 1944), George King (Tomorrow We Live, 1943), and Leslie Arliss (The Wicked Lady, 1945).

 

It was Fisher's work as film editor that saved him from serving in the second World War, as film editors were seen as essential for the homefront wartime efforts.

Terence Fisher's last assignment as editor came in 1947 with Master of Bankdam, yet another film by Walter Forde. By that time though, the studio heads of the Rank Organisation, Fisher's employer during that part of his career, somehow noticed the talented (not all that) young man, and so it came into being that Fisher got his first assignment as director at 43 years of age ...

 


 

Terence Fisher, Director: The Early Years

 

Back in the late 1940's, the Rank Organisation, then a major British filmstudio, ran a small studio outfit, Production Facilities, on the side, basically a teswting ground to try out untested yet promising directors on low budget fare, people like - you guessed it - the former editor Terence Fisher.

The first film Fisher did for Production Facilities was Colonel Bogey (1947), a supernatural comedy that was well enough made concerning the level of pure craftmanship, but had very little special to offer. Because of it's supernatural theme, Colonel Bogey is often cited as a precursor for latter things to come in the horror realm - but that's pure bullshit, there's remarkably little to link the film to later Hammer-shockers. And whoever says Fisher's choice of topic alone concerning his first film must mean something has very little insight in low budget filmmaking, where directors are not really choosing their films themselves - and as if to prove this, Fisher's next two films for Production Facilities are anything but horror but all over the place genre-wise, the romance A Song for Tomorrow (1948) - featuring later Fisher-regular Christopher Lee in a very early, small role - and To the Public Danger (1948), a morality play about the dangers of alcoholism.

 


Apparently, Fisher's work on these programmers for Production Facilities has caught the attention of someone at Gainsborough, by then actually another affiliate of the Rank Organisation. Soon, Fisher was hired by the studio to helm films with a considerably bigger budget than those he did for Production Facilities, starting with the drama Portrait from Life (1948) - which is today mainly remembered for being British actor Anthony Steel's movie debut. Like with Production Facilities earlier, Fisher had not been married to any particular genre at Gainsborough, so the drama Portrait from Life was soon followed by the romantic comedy Marry Me (1949), the Noel Coward-romance The Astonished Heart (1950, co-directed with Antony Darnborough), and the mystery So Long at the Fair (again 1950, co-directed with Antony Darnborough) starring Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde.

 


 

Early Hammer

 

Due to the lack of any real success, the Rank Organisation shut down Gainsborough in 1951, which naturally forced Terence Fisher out of a job. Freelancing, Fisher did one film for a small production company called New World Pictures (not affiliated with Roger Corman's company of the same name [Roger Corman bio - click here]), the low budget police thriller Home to Danger (1951), before signing up with a little studio called Hammer, which was then specialized in producing B movies for the British and (via Lippert Pictures) the American market - which is why early Hammer-films often starred American actors (mainly from the B-list though). Hammer hadn't specialized on any one genre yet - and was by no means the horror powerhouse it had become in later years -, but was experimenting with various genres, of which crime dramas, often of the noir variety, proved to be the most cost effective, as they were relatively easy to produce, had a certain attraction to audiences everywhere, and could thus be easily sold to American audiences. But when I say these films were cost-effective, I'm not saying they were especially successful, they probably mostly made their money back and even a tiny profit, but none of the early Hammer-movies (noir or otherwise) have actually been box office smashhits let alone become classics - even though at least some of them are quite good (though in terms of cinematic craftsmanship rather than directorial inventiveness.

 



Fisher's first film for Hammer was The Last Page/Man Bait (1952), and actually it was a very decent film, a noirish crime thriller based on a play by English thriller writer James Hadley Chase featuring British bombshell Diana Dors as a naive blonde trying to be a femme fatale. Sure, it wasn't exactly free of clichés and it did lack directorial ingenuity to become anything more than an entertaining genre film, but for what it was, a low budget crime thriller, it was quite good.

With Wings of Danger (1952), Stolen Face (1952), Mantrap (1953), Blood Orange/Three Stops to Murder (1953), Face the Music/The Black Glove (1954), Murder by Proxy/Blackout (1954) and The Stranger Came Home/The Unholy Four (1954), Terence Fisher made more of the same, again for Hammer: cost-efficient crime thrillers that were quite entertaining by themselves, but certainly no classics ... with the possible exception of Murder by Proxy, a noir in the tradition of The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) that despite an over-convoluted story pulls all the right stops and that would deserve more attention than it actually gets.

 

Even before Terence Fisher had proven what he was able to do in the realm of crime thrillers given the chance with Murder by Proxy, he also tried his hands on the science fiction genre for the first time with two films - considerably less successful though:



  • The Four-Sided Triangle (1953) is a film about two scientists creating a artificial human - but actually it's more of a love story (and a pretty stupid one at that) about one of the scientists wanting to (re-)create the woman of his dreams - the wife of his colleague. Then though his creation falls for his colleague as well ... and this is not a comedy.
  • Spaceways (1953) is a film about the space-race and the Cold War, all wrapped up in a murder mystery with some romance thrown in - but when in a film about rocketship development all the rocket launch scenes are derived from over-used stock footage of V-2 experiments, you kind of notice you're not in for something all that big.


Besides crime and science fiction, Fisher also tried his hands on sports drama for Hammer, with the film Mask of Dust/Race for Life (1954) - but that movie is not much more than a cliché riddled story about a racecar driver having to decide between the woman he loves and car racing, and the most interesting aspect about it is its many cameos by real racecar drivers like Stirling Moss and Reg Parnell.

 


Back in the early days of Terence Fisher's association with Hammer, their relationship was anything but exclusive, as he also accepted work from other companies, like Distant Trumpet (1952), an hommage to missionary doctors in Africa, which he made for Meridian Films, or the crime drama Final Appointment (1954) for ACT Films. However, more non-Hammer work from circa the mid-1950's onwards came from television, where he directed episodes of series like the anthology series Douglas Fairbanks jr Presents (1953 - '55), Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1956) starring Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], The Adventures of Robin Hood (1956 - '57) and the crime series Dial 999 (1959). All of this television work though was certainly inferior to the films he had made for Hammer and other studios, and certainly inferior to the classics he would soon be making - but then again, TV-work meant bread on the table, right?

 

By 1955, Fisher's collaboration with Hammer had come to a temporary halt. As of yet, Fisher had failed to put his own stamp on the company's output, and likewise Hammer was still searching for a formula to strike box office gold - thus the separation of the man and the company seem s to be reasonable (if not necessary), and there is no report that there had been any animosity between the two parties prior to the (temporary) split.

 


During the next few years and besides his TV-work, Fisher made a handful of movies for various companies, like the comedy Children Galore (1955) for Grendon Films, the crime comedy Stolen Assignment (1955) and the crime drama The Last Man to Hang? (1956) for ACT Films, and the crime thrillers The Flaw (1955) and The Gelignite Gang (1956, co-directed with Francis Searle) for Cybex Film Productions.

Apparently, Fisher hit it off particularly well with Francis Searle, who produced his Final Appointment and Stolen Assignment and co-directed The Gelignite Gang, because the two man soon made some high-flying plans and formed a production company together, Delta ... but unfortunately, all this company ever released was one movie, Kill Me Tomorrow (1957), a crime drama co-directed by Fisher and Searle and starring Pat O'Brien and Lois Maxwell. The film was, as were many of Fisher's early films, a decent effort in the noir-realm - but it was hardly anything out of the ordinary.

 

1957 was also the year Fisher returned to Hammer - but the Hammer he returned to had somewhat changed from the one he left 3 years ago, and he would help to change it even more ...

 


 

Frankenstein, Dracula, the Hound, the Mummy ... the Classics

 

In 1955, the year after Fisher's departure, Hammer had finally struck gold with The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest), a feature remake of a popular BBC-sci-fi television serial (click here). The film wasn't only extremely successful in Great Britain, where it of course profited from the popularity of the serial (which was aired live and could thus not be repeated), but also in the USA and Europe, where it hit just the nerve with the audiences who loved alien invasion stories back in the day.

The Quatermass Xperiment was soon followed by more of the same, X - The Unknown (1956, Leslie Norman) and the inevitable sequel Quatermass 2 (1957, Val Guest), which both captivated audiences at home and abroad like the first film.

 

These three films were the first bona fide hits for Hammer, and they got the studioheads thinking: If these three science fiction films with undeniable horror undercurrents could draw large audiences, couldn't there be a market for genuine (as in gothic) horror as well? There hadn't been a successful gothic shocker for about 10 years, since the demise of the Universal horror cycle, but that's exactly why gothic could work again: other than 10 years ago the market wasn't over-saturated with gothics but there was now an actual gap that needed to be filled.

Now of course, you couldn't make these films like 10, 20 or 25 years ago anymore, the audience was asking for more - on one hand this was horror more explicit than back in the day, with scenes showing gore and bodyparts (which all might look perfectly tame today looking back at old Hammer-shockers, but these scenes were shockingly innovative when first released onto the bloodthirsty audience), and on the other hand this was colour ... sure, there were horror movies in colour before, Universal's Phantom of the Opera (1943, Arthur Lubin) and The Climax (1944, George Waggner) quickly spring to mind, but these films used colour merely as a gimmick with little actual narrative function or effective uses. It was upon Hammer, and especially upon Terence Fisher, to really marry colour to the horror genre, to prove that an over-saturated colour spectrum can seem just as menacing as creepy black and white - after all, blood is red, isn't it?

 


This little introduction beautifully sets the stage for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first gothic Fisher directed for Hammer. The Curse of Frankenstein was of course a bit of a gamble, also artistically, because with Universal's Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale), and of course with Boris Karloff's iconic portrayal of the monster [Boris Karloff bio - click here], the way a Frankenstein film was supposed to look was almost set in stone. Furthermore, the distincive likeness of the monster (a big factor in the success of Universal's Frankensteins) was copyrighted by Universal.

Fortunately enough, nobody at Hammer, least of all Terence Fisher, was planning on copying James Whale's/Universal's undeniable masterpieces, instead a fresh approach was chosen that paid only little attention to the monster (a then virtually unknown Christopher Lee) but turned Victor Frankenstein himself into the villain of the piece, yet not a villain out of evil intentions but a man of moral ambivalence - and by having him portrayed by Peter Cushing, then a celebrated TV-actor who was especially good in bringing the ambivalent aspects of the character to the fore, one can't but congratulate Terence Fisher for his choice of lead actor. The two men would by the way collaborate time and again in the future, as would Fisher and Christopher Lee, and of course Lee and Cushing. From the number of films these three men would work on in the future (either all three or only two of them) alone one can see that horror history was written with The Curse of Frankenstein.

 

The Curse of Frankenstein might have been a gamble, but the gamble totally paid off, audiences in the UK, all over Europe and the USA flocked in to see the film, loved its blood and macabre details, accepted the total absence of a bona fide hero, and even though he was already 52 when he made the film, Terence Fisher could claim for himself that he has infused new blood into a genre that was lying dormant for about a decade with a radically fresh approach.

 


And speaking of new blood: With The Curse of Frankenstein being such a phenomenal success, Hammer was quick to track down other established horror properties to put their (and Terence Fisher's) spin on, and the first thing they came up with was, to noone's real surprise, Dracula.

For many critics, Terence Fisher's Dracula/Horror of Dracula (1958) was an even greater achievement than The Curse of Frankenstein, but I beg to differ: Dracula is a very fine film indeed, and undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of gothic cinema, but it was by far not as radical and radically different in approach as The Curse of Frankenstein. On the contrary, the film remains fairly (though not completely) faithful to Bram Stoker's source novel and does share quite a few elements with its 1931Universal-counterpart by Tod Browning (click here) while Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein steered completely clear of James Whale's earlier film. Also, Dracula is neither as explicit nor as genuinely macabre as Fisher's earlier film - but that said, the blood still flows red in Dracula, and Christopher Lee, who was catapulted to stardom with this film, is a very fine vampire count easily rivalling Bela Lugosi's iconic performance [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], with Peter Cushing making an impressive and energetic Van Helsing who gives the character a presence, depth and ambivalence unheard of in earlier versions of the story. Plus, the erotic undercurrents of the novel downplayed in the 1931-version are much more overt here (though don't expect anything explicit), and Christopher Lee plays his Count fully aware of his sexuality, and his vampire was one of the very first movie vampires to sport fangs (which can be regarded as penis symbols of course).

 

Fact is that Dracula's success exceeded even that of The Curse of Frankenstein, and from now on at the latest, the road was set for Hammer, which became the horror studio of the UK in the 1950's and 60's, with the majority of the studio's films being gothics - also because one could use the same sets again and again ...

 



After the (inevitable yet quite likeable) first sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), which has Peter Cushing's Frankenstein doubling as mad scientist and doctor for the poor (so much for ambivalence), Hammer got Terence Fisher to update another cornerstone of horror literature, the Sherlock Holmes-tale The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). One has to understand here that no Sherlock Holmes-movies have graced the big screen since Basil Rathbone's run as the detective, which lasted from 1939 to 1946, and who for many was the ultimate Sherlock Holmes as it is (there were quite a few TV-adaptations featuring other actors though). So adapting a Sherlock Holmes-tale for the big screen was a bit of a gamble, especially one that had already been filmed with Rathbone in the lead in 1939 (click here) - yet Hammer and Terence Fisher went ahead anyways, again casting their dream team of Peter Cushing (as Sherlock Holmes) and Christopher Lee (as Henry Baskerville) in the leads, playing up the horror aspects of the story while almost ignoring its romance aspects (which took center stage in the 1939-version) and relying on the (by now typical) over-saturated colours, macabre details and beautiful gothic sets (many of them reused from earlier films) to put a new stamp on the story. And much more than Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing brings the moral failings of the Sherlock Holmes-character to the fore, which allow him to even risk the life of his client only for the sake of solving the case.

Fisher's The Hound of the Baskervilles was quite possibly the very best adaptation of the novel, it easily blows the Rathbone version out of the water and it has over the years become acknowledged as a genuine horror classic - yet while reasonably successful it did not become the big hit Hammer expected it to become - actually the studio wanted to develop the supersleuth into a third series besides Frankenstein and Dracula, but dropped the option after the film had not become a smashhit along the lines of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. It's interesting in this respect though that while Hammer stayed away from the property for good after this film, Terence Fisher, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would all be drawn back to the character later in their careers, Cushing first in 1968, taking over the role in the BBC-series Sherlock Holmes from Douglas Wilmer, then again in 1984 in The Masks of Death, interestingly directed by Hammer-regular Roy Ward Baker and co-written by Anthony Hinds of - you guessed it - Hammer-fame.

About Fisher's and Lee's future involvement with Sherlock Holmes we'll talk a little further down.

 


After tackling iconic characters in his last handful of films, Terence Fisher settled for something smaller (figuratively speaking of course) with The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) - and maybe due to the lack of an iconic character, this film makes the moral ambivalence of Fisher's gothics which I have mentioned time and again earlier on much clearer: The film lacks any genuine hero or even so-called anti-hero, yet its villain if you may, the character played by Anton Diffring who simply wants to live forever (and who doesn't) no matter what it costs (including human lives) is not a bad guy in the classical sense of the word, he is not evil for the evil's sake but has an at least partially understandable cause ...

 


With The Mummy (1959), Fisher returned to by now more familiar waters, leaving his mark on another horror icon (the mummy, in case you wondered). However, while Fisher's takes on Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes were nothing less than inspired, The Mummy was merely good craftsmanship, and the fact that the film is still a pretty decent horror thriller and a vast improvement over the Universal's Kharis the Mummy features from the 1940's can be credited to his talent as a director rather than any particular vision of his.

Like The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, The Mummy was eventually spun off into a series, but here, Fisher directed none of the sequels, which were all pretty bad though.

 


 

Downward Spiral: The Early 1960's

 

Within just a handful of years, Terence Fisher has not only resurrected gothic horror and made it profitable, he has also turned a relatively insignificant British production house into the world's number one horror producer - and while critics often say that the look and feel of Fisher's horror classics - and their quality, subsequently -, can be attributed more to the Hammer-housestyle than to his skills and vision, then this is at best half-true: Sure, Fisher did not have total freedom over his material, concerning aspects like casting, art direction and script (or even choice of script, quite possibly), and he had to work budget-conscious - but on the other hand, he helped create the Hammer-housestyle, the studio simply didn't produce any gothics (and only very few period pieces) before his.

 

Even after having directed a handful of classics in just a few years in the late 1950's, the 1960's started on a promising note for Terence Fisher, with The Stranglers of Bombay (1960). Sure, this film was a step down inasmuch as it was in black and white just after Fisher had proven his mastery of colour filmmaking, and from today's point of view, it can hardly be considered politically correct, and yet it is a pretty tense thriller about religious fanatics with a predilection for strangling in colonial India.

 



After The Stranglers of Bombay, Fisher revisited the Dracula-myth - with one major problem though: He didn't have a Dracula for his movie Brides of Dracula (1960) because Christopher Lee refused outrightly to play the vampire count ever again (a promise he eventually broke in 1966) and the heads at Hammer were smart enough to not replace charismatic Lee with another actor. Instead, the focus of this film was shifted to Dracula's nemesis Van Helsing (played once again by the equally charismatic Peter Cushing), and a script was cooked up that had only little to do with Dracula from two years before, even if it claims to be a direct sequel storywise. And thanks to Fisher's competent to inspired direction, Brides of Dracula became another pretty decent movie, even if it obviously did not meet the expectations of the studio at the box office, since Hammer did not make another Dracula-film until 1966, when Lee finally decided to return to the role, and Peter Cushing didn't return to the Van Helsing-role until 1972's Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson).

 


Having already tackled Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy, it seems to have been only a question of time until Hammer would let Terence Fisher try his hands on Jekyll and Hyde, which he did in 1960 with The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll - to unfortunately disastrous results. You see, The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll was a radical re-interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, which has Paul Massie as a somewhat unattractive, reclusive and even boring scientist, Jekyll, turn into Hyde, a quite handsome young man who feels at home with and is immediately accepted by society - but of course he's also a killer. The problem with this film is not so much that Hyde is the handsome one here but that Jekyll is a rather unlikeable fellow whom you can't very well feel for - which of course totally destroys the basic (inner) conflict of the film.

 


With the werewolf, yet another iconic horror creature, Terence Fisher felt much more at home when he made Curse of the Werewolf (1961), a much more traditional story that has Oliver Reed in the role of the young man who turns into a wolf every full moon, a condition he desperately tries to rid himself of. The film is certainly not on par with Fisher's classics from the late 1950's, but as a (slightly clichéd) piece of genre cinema, it's actually pretty good.

 


Equally traditional in tone is The Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), which Fisher made just prior to Curse of the Werewolf and which was one of his very few excursions into non-horror territory during that time. Instead, it was a visit of the Robin Hood-myth, which he was already familiar with from directing for the TV-series The Adventures of Robin Hood - and wouldn't you know it, The Sword of Sherwood Forest even brought Richard Greene, the lead of the series (which only ended a month or so prior to the film's release), back to the lead role (but had pretty much everyone else substituted for whatever reason). The film though is well-enough made, but nothing to get excited about, and thus it only helped to typecast Terence Fisher as a horror filmmaker.

(By the way, in all, Hammer tried its hands on the Robin Hood-property 3 times, the other two attempts were Men of Sherwood Forest [Val Guest] from 1954 and 1967's A Challenge for Robin Hood [C.M.Pennington Richards].)

 



That Terence Fisher eventually directed The Phantom of the Opera (1962) seems to be almost inevitable, since he has already tackled pretty much every other iconic horror monster, and just like with The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, Fisher tried a radically different approach with his version of the Phantom, one in which the title character, as played by Herbert Lom, eventually emerges as the good guy and is even allowed to die a hero's death. Now I generally welcome new approaches to age-old stories, but in the case of The Phantom of the Opera, the changes make little sense, as with the Phantom being a good guy, the whole film lacks an actual villain. All the film presents us with in that department is a crazy dwarf (Ian Wilson), but this character is little more than a joke and totally lacks motivation.

It should be noted here that The Phantom of the Opera was a very ambitious project for Hammer, reportedly the studio's most expensive movie so far - yet it failed to deliver at the box office and resulted in a (minor) fall-out between Fisher and what was pretty much his home company, Hammer.

 



As a result, Terence Fisher took Christopher Lee and went to Germany, where notorious bandwagon jumper Artur Brauner and his company CCC Filmkunst wanted to try something that Hammer had already given up on, launch a Sherlock Holmes-movie series. With Fisher and Lee, who was back then still a hot item, on board Brauner figured he could profit in two ways, on one hand cash in on the relative success of The Hound of the Baskervilles of course, but on the other he also wanted to have an instantly recognizable series of his own to rival his chief rival Rialto's Edgar Wallace-series.

Now one can't blame Artur Brauner for the attempt to launch a Sherlock Holmes-series, and even giving its lead role to Christopher Lee was an almost inspired choice (even though he never quite matched Peter Cushing's rendition of the character), yet while this all might sound like instant cult in writing, the actual film resulting from all of this, Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes/Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) is decidedly less than great - I would even go so far and claim it's a particularly uninspired movie and among Fisher's worst (while The Hound of the Baskervilles was among his best). However, the failure of this film isn't Fisher's fault alone: Sure, you can tell he was not really interested in the stuff he has been given to work with and delivers pure craftsmanship, but he was also given a horrible screenplay (by veteran Curt Siodmak, incidently [Curt Siodmak bio - click here]), had to work on a too low budget and in black and white after he had proven what he could do to the detective when using colour with The Hound of the Baskervilles. That all said, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace is kind of cute from today's point of view as a charmingly dated and clumsy attempt to make a period detective film, but its qualities are more in the camp department and it doesn't even come close in quality to Fisher's classics...

Terence Fisher gave up on Sherlock Holmes after that one, but Christopher Lee apparently could not get enough of the series that easily, playing Sherlock's brother Mycroft in Billy Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) with Robert Stephens in the title role, before once again becoming Sherlock Holmes in a pair of mysteries in the productions of which Silvio Berlusconi had his hands before becoming prime minister of Italy: Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991, Peter Sasdy) and Incident at Victoria Falls (1992, Bill Corcoran).

 

Having found only moderate success in Germany, Fisher returned to the UK and made a film for Lippert Pictures, a company that in the 50's and 60's was heavy on importing British films into the USA but also occasionally produced films on both sides of the Atlantic. The film in question is the old dark house-comedy The Horror of it All (1963), with - of all people - singer Pat Boone in the lead. And you know what, Boone's reasonably ok in this film actually, it's the rather unfunny script that brings the film down, coupled with the fact that Fisher was a man of many a talent, but he just wasn't cut out to make comedies. To cut a long story short, The Horror of it All was anything but a success, is probably Fisher's most obscure film of the 1960's - and it might have been part of the reason why he returned to Hammer after this one.

 


Unfortunately, Fisher's next film for Hammer, The Gorgon (1964), wasn't exactly a classic either: After having resurrected one classic horror monster after another, Fisher and Hammer decided to go for something a little more original, trying to incorporate a monster from Greek mythology into a horror plot, the snake-haired Medusa. But while this all sounds mighty ambitious, nobody had any better idea of how to treat the Medusa than to feature her in a story set in the moors already familiar from The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy. The resulting film is one of Fisher's more boring pictures ...

 

Much more interesting was The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), another film made for Lippert Pictures, shot in black and white and on a tiny budget, which was also Fisher's first excursion into bona fide science fiction in a good decade - and despite its budgetary restrictions and a somewhat uneven script, The Earth Dies Screaming has turned out to be a pretty decent film about aliens trying to annihilate the human race as a whole, and the attempts of the last few survivors to fight and defeat the alien invaders and their robots.

 


 

Sequels, Mostly - The Long Fade-Out

 


By the mid-1960's, Hammer, still Terence Fisher's house studio, had long surpassed its climax, and was becoming less and less interested in putting out ambitious, even trailblazing projects, instead they were relying (and cashing in) on their own past successes - in other words producing sequel after sequel of their past hits, first and foremost of course The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. And since Terence Fisher back in his days had not been considered a name director or even author (like he's now) but needed to make money, he simply had to play ball.

Thus in 1966, he accepted the assignment to direct Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Now the fim isn't without siginificance inasmuch as it marked Christopher Lee's return to the lead role after 8 years of absence, but it's also a very formulaic vampire-gothic, to which Terence Fisher lends his hand as a seasoned horror director, but shows little in terms of actual vision or inspiration. Sure, if you like Hammer-movies as such, you won't be disappointed by this one, but it's far from being the cinematic revelation that Fisher's first Dracula was.

 


At this time(the mid- to late 1960's), Fisher proved to be more interesting when away from Hammer, like with the science fiction film Island of Terror (1966), which he made for small fry production house Planet Film Productions. Sure, the plot of a cancer antivirus that develops a life of its own and attacks people to suck out their bones (yup, not merely bone-marrow but bones as a whole) is pretty silly, and the actual depiction of the antivirus doesn't help one bit, but Fisher's sure hand as a director manages to iron out all the film's inconsistencies and make this into a very decent piece of low budget science fiction that at least makes sense in itself nevertheless. No masterpiece maybe, but totally watchable.

 


Likewise, Night of the Big Heat (1967), another science fiction movie Fisher did for Planet Film Productions, is at least an interesting watch: This time around, aliens heat up an island in the North of the UK for their sinister purposes. Again, the film is no masterpiece, but quite entertaining for the piece of genre cinema that it's supposed to be.

 



Back at Hammer, Terence Fisher actually managed to infuse a bit of new blood into the Frankenstein-series with Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), which actually manages to shift the attention from Frankenstein himself (as played by Peter Cushing) to his creation played by Susan Denberg, who somehow is the seductive female combination of an unlucky couple of dead lovers who use the new body to exact revenge on those who have wronged them. It's interesting to see that the character of Frankenstein has switched to being a good guy in this one, while the creature is very attractive (much more so than the couple it was made from) but also more homicidal than Frankenstein's previous creations (even though her murders are somehow understandable if not justifiable).

 


The Devil Rides Out (1968) was pretty much Terence Fisher's last attempt to make something more worthwhile than series movies, a very effective and tightly paced thriller about a family's fight against satanists. The film was more mature and subtle than Fisher's usual output from pretty much all of the 1960's, and really showed what Fisher was capable of doing given the chance. Of course, one might argue that the film was based on a book by famed novelist Dennis Wheatley and scripted by none other than veteran Richard Matheson, which is quite a notch or two above the usual material Fisher was given to work with, which in turn automatically results in a better film - but having said that, one can't help but notice that The Devil Rides Out features a few especially silly plotholes which are only made reasonable by Fisher's direction.

 


As good as the film was however, The Devil Rides Out did not hit a nerve with the audiences, and thus Fisher was returned to the Frankenstein-series, which was also losing steam and audience appreciation but still promised reasonable returns at the box office.

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) though presents the title character as a meaner person than ever. In Frankenstein Created Woman he was, as stated, almost a good guy, though a morally a bit ambiguous one, while here he's almost pure evil, a rapist and eventual murderer who cannot justify all his actions with his experiments and research (this time mostly in the field of brain transplantation) anymore. Sure, Peter Cushing's depiction of the character is still outstanding, and Fisher directs the whole thing with a sure hand, but due to a totally muddled, badly conceived script you simply can't bring yourself to care too much for Frankenstein the character anymore, which seriously hurts the film.

 

After Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, Terence Fisher (temporarily) retired from filmmaking, and why wouldn't he, he was already 65 years of age.

In the meaintime, the horror world changed quite a bit: Gothics of the sort Hammer were coming more and more out of style, while cheap European productions that put an extra emphasis on the sexual components of the horror stories they tried to tell swamped cinemas all over the Western hemisphere (of course not the first-run houses but the grindhouses and fleapit theatres that actually did run horror moviesand  where companies like Hammer made a considerable portion of their profits from). Yet the most deadly blow to independent horror-filmmaking came in 1973 with The Exorcist (William Friedkin) - which is of course a genre classic no doubt, but it also proved to the major Hollywood studios that horror was a genre ripe to exploit and that it paid to muscle the (independent) competition out of the game. Big budget Hollywood did just that, of course.

For the longest time, Hammer had tried to move with the flow, but with only moderate success: Their attempts at creating erotic horror films resulted in well-crafted films - that were way too tame to give the continental competition a run for the money. An attempt to relaunch the Frankenstein-series with the rather amusing The Horror of Frankenstein (1970, Jimmy Sangster) with Ralph Bates in the title role failed to really catch on with the audiences, and attempts to create martial arts crossover movies with the likes of Shatter (1974, Michael Carreras) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker) might seem cute in retrospect but neither did they fare as well at the box office as expected nor are they really good films.

 


So ultimately in 1974, Hammer came up with the idea to resurrect their original Frankenstein yet again, to again be played by the always dependable Peter Cushing. And for the resurrection, the studio even hired the man responsible for the original Curse of Frankenstein once more, Terence Fisher (of course), by now 70 years old. The resulting film, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), is an enjoyable and enjoyably old-fashioned little film in which Fisher proves he's still able to handle a gothic (even if the film lacks the inspiration of his classics) and Peter Cushing proves why he and no other should be identified with the character of Frankenstein - and yet, it did little to renew interest in the series and pretty much was only the last nail in Frankenstein's coffin back in the day.

 

After that, Terence Fisher retired from filmmaking completely, and there are nowadays many speculations as to why, and even some unconfirmed reports that he has over the years become an alocoholic who was impossible to work with.

The real reason though was probably way more mundane: The guy was 70 by the time he made Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, which seems a good retirement age for me in any job. And since Terence Fisher never saw himself as an artist to begin with (even if some of his films might be considered works of art nowadays) and didn't have anything more to prove, why would he go on making films, especially since his home studio Hammer at the time was getting into financial troubles as it was, and it also was a bit late for Terence Fisher to start anew - and once again, why should he?

 

When Terence Fisher died in London, England, in 1980, film historians were only starting to re-evaluate his work, that has previously only been regarded as the indifferent output of a studio hack. Since his death though not only his influence on the Hammer house style but on the gothic genre as a whole has been honoured numerous times, and his (initial) renditions of Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes have long become iconic. Plus, when watching Fisher's best films, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that of all people someone like Hollywood eccentric Tim Burton calls him one of his major influences ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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